What I hate about books about videogames

There’s been a burst of scholarly books about videogames in the past two years, and I’ve been going through as many as I can get my hands on. While there are astonishingly bright spots in individual books, the books overall have repeatedly been disappointing. I’ve begun noticing trends of things I hate about academic books about videogames. Here are just a few of the problems I see:

  1. The books adopt an overly defensive stance, spending far too much time justifying their object of study, instead of, well, studying it. Countless books about videogames begin by quoting industry-wide sales figures. The books invariably draw some comparison to the film industry (as in videogames soon or have already overtaken the film industry in revenue generated). My problem with this defensive posture is, who cares? Would any self-respecting Joyce scholar begin an academic study by mentioning sales figures of Finnigan’s Wake? It doesn’t matter how big or little a part of our culture videogames are; the fact that they exist alone justifies their study.
  2. Once the books convince themselves that they’re worth taking seriously, they begin the same way, by talking about games and play. I have read countless rehashes of Huizinga and Callois and not once has a book said something new or somehow added something original to the discussion about play. And very few books seem aware of the latest anthropological models of play.
  3. The books strive to do too much, theoretically-speaking, and they miss their mark. There seems to be a deep urge to force literary and philosophical theoretical models upon videogames. This is not entirely bad, and I agree that critical theory has much to teach us about gaming. But many books are relentless in their pursuit of theory: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Zizek, Badiou–and these might all be in the same book! The more ambitious books don’t just name drop, they also attempt to formulate an all-encompassing, master theoretical model (often composed a la carte from bits and pieces of different–and sometimes opposing–theoretical traditions).
  4. The cost of all this theory is that the books don’t do what we arguably need most: deep, close readings of individual games. And I don’t just mean “reading” in a literary studies sense, analyzing plot, themes, subtext, etc.; I also mean in a “ludic” sense, that is, attentiveness to the game-like elements of the work (structure, rules, interface, etc.). Many of the books are so hung up on proposing theoretical models that they don’t end up saying anything about videogames. If they do finally get around to examining games themselves, they do it in a breezy manner, saying a few words about GTA III and then moving immediately on to a few sentences about another game. Sustained, coherent, and innovative close readings are hard to come by. (To be fair, this criticism applies to other fields in the humanities, like literary and film studies.)

Of course, I admit that I’m generalizing here. And also (upon rereading what I’ve written) I believe I might sound a bit cranky.

As I’ve said, I have encountered a few eureka moments in these books. But my overall impression leaves me despairing. The field as a whole is spinning its wheels. Maybe I’m expecting too much too quickly? The field is young, after all. Or maybe I just haven’t read the right book yet?

Fall 2006 Courses

For a lack of anything else intelligent to say at this hour, I’m posting descriptions for two of the undergrad courses that I’m teaching next fall:

21st Century American Fiction
(ENGL 429:001)

What innovative directions is American fiction taking in the new millennium? How have novelists and other writers reacted to the dominant events of the past few years: the dot-com bust and ensuing recession; the 9/11 terrorist attacksand the War on Terror; the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its impact at home and abroad; and the ascendancy of the virtual world? In this advanced literature course we will examine the trends, assumptions, and anxieties reflected in an assortment of recent fiction, published by both rising stars and well established writers.


Apocalyptic Thought in American Fiction
(ENGL 202:004)

There is a long history of apocalyptic thought in American fiction, and in this class we will examine the relationship between visions of the end and the social and historical contexts that give rise to those visions. We will consider the literary renderings of both religious apocalyptic scenarios (Doomsday, the Rapture, the Second Coming) and secular apocalyptic scenarios (environmental, biological, nuclear). The final portion of the class will consider the Journey into the Wilderness–a long-standing tradition in apocalyptic literature. We will treat the fiction we read as exactly that: fiction. In other words, we are not studying the apocalypse, but rather, representations of the apocalypse. As such, these representations reveal more about our anxieties and concerns with the present world than about any deeply held belief we hold about the end of the universe.

Professors, students, and emails

A recent article in the New York Times details some of the changes that email has wrought upon professor-student relationships in higher ed:

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

I agree with the first statement: email can create virtual open office hours, and there is no doubt that I hear from (and respond to) students who would never–often for very practical reasons–be able to make my real world office hours.

But I have problems with the second statement: that students should somehow be kept at a healthy distance, as if they carried a transmittable disease that I, in my pure, uncontaminated Ivory Tower, must be protected from.

Yes, it can be annoying when I receive emails like some of the ones mentioned in the articles: naive students asking what kind of binder to buy for class, drunken students offering excuses for absences from class, and angry students writing about a grade. But these kinds of messages are extremely rare. And when I do get one, I don’t feel as if the hallowed walls of academia are under assault by a new generation of disrespectful hooligans.

But perhaps what bothered me most about the Times article is how it ends:

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

This directive–that “the less powerful person always has to write back”–I find especially troubling. There’s the simple practical matter that the fewer trivial email messages I receive, the better. If I received a “thank you” message every time I emailed a student, I’d be wading in a flood of insignificant, gnat-like emails. But my real concern is that this directive encapsulates a Miss Manners type of social hierarchy full of scraping and bowing. Yes, in a way, I am more powerful than my students, since I have a Ph.D. and I am evaluating them. But, in another way, I could care less that I’m more powerful than my students, and foregrounding that kind of power relation short-circuits my pedagogical approach to the classroom. Add to this the fact that, truth be told, most students could care less themselves that I’m more powerful than them–since it’s only symbolic capital that I yield–and you are left with a directive that seems to be more about stroking professors’ egos than about conveying respect.

I’d rather drop the farce, treat my students as adults, and put up with the occasional annoying (but usually hilarious) email.

Live Blogging at the MLA

I half-heartedly had wanted to live blog the MLA convention last week, but it just didn’t happen. The last time I live blogged was the 2004 presidential debate, and I guess, in comparison, the MLA just wasn’t worth the effort.

That, and the fact that less than 24 hours after my own MLA presentation I began the first leg of a journey which eventually brought me across the Atlantic to Madrid. So far, things are going better than my last trip to Spain, just sick six months ago.

To make up for the lack of live — blogging at the MLA (as if anyone would care), maybe I’ll try to squeeze in some mobile blogging here in Spain. Full-out Christmas isn’t celebrated here until King’s Day, on January 6, so there are a lot of festivities around worth taking in…

Career Killing Blogs

Slate has a new article on academics who blog, Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs – When academics post online, do they risk their jobs? by Robert S. Boynton. The article mentions the infamous (among a very small circle of academic bloggers) Chronicle article, Bloggers Need Not Apply, which essentially argues that academics who have their own blogs ultimately damage their careers.

Boynton’s take is much more nuanced, recognizing both how the academic publishing industry is rapidly changing (downsizing is more like) and what underlies the tension between blogging and universities (which academic blogger John Holbo calls in Boyton’s article the last vestige of the “medieval guild system”).

As for me, I don’t expect my blog–this blog–to affect my career one way or another. It’s not like I’m spreading gossip, sharing dark fantasies, or posting my neuroses.

Many of my posts are simply observations–the kind I would talk about with a group of friends, if I still had the time. But I’m too busy teaching and writing to sit around anymore and talk about these kinds of things. So I steal a few random minutes, spit them out on my blog, and then, I forget about them.

The posts that aren’t simply observations are usually ideas in incubation that will eventually surface (peer-reviewed, documented, cited, leeched of personality) in a conference paper, journal article, or someday a book. The posts are placeholders, in a sense, for the real intellectual work that lies ahead.

What my colleagues make of all this, I have no idea. I suppose the real problem with academics who blog is that they leave evidence that they’re not at that precise moment engaged in research or teaching. A blog is an index to one’s daily “unproductive” activity. If all of our other unproductive time (eating, commuting, watching television, basic personal hygiene) was likewise plotted and mapped for the world to see, then everyone would realize that everyone else is also making space for things other than “work.”

A Fleeting Thought on Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is one of the enduring keywords of academia in the past decade. I’ve been hearing it praised for so long now and seeing so little actual evidence of it, that I’m beginning to think all the praise is simply wish-fulfillment. And like most wishes, the wisher probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if it ever came true.

In the humanities, the closest we come to interdisciplinarity is arranging a panel which brings together a literary scholar, a historian, and maybe an artist, all talking about something entirely different. But they’re all on the same panel. And that’s interdisciplinarity.

It seems to me that if interdisciplinarity is happening at all at the university level, it is in the sciences. Chemists, physicists, and biologists have a lot more to say to each other–and work to produce together–than we in the humanities will ever admit to ourselves.

I wonder, what true interdisciplinary projects could bring together scholars and researchers from different fields in the humanities? What would such a project look like?

KOAN: A professor of poststructuralist literary theory, 17th century Armenian history, and Greek epic poetry walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the three and says, what is this, some kind of joke?