Inside Out: The Pokemon Conundrum

In the last Japanese history seminar of my first year of graduate school, we shifted gears from the economic and political legacy of the immediate post-war period to slightly more current topics - the 'afterlives of area studies,' the fate of post-colonialism in a world weary of po-co, and ... Pokémon and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I was at once delighted and disappointed to see respected academics tackling questions of "popular culture" that we often shy away from, at least in the context of "history" books. After we broke for coffee and reconvened, we launched into our discussion of some of the essays included in Japan After Japan: Social and Culture Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present. "Any thoughts on 'Pokémon Capitalism at the Millennium'?" my professor queried. Most eyes were on me, the 'gamer/game writer.' "Well, I thought it was an interesting essay," I started. "And it's nice to see gaming centre stage like this, but ..."

There's always a 'but.' The thing that struck me most about Anne Allison's otherwise interesting essay was for me -- a "gamer" and someone who writes about games -- was that she clearly had little experience with games themselves. As it turned out, she was apparently inspired to look into the Pokémon phenomenon after her children started playing; beyond purchasing and observing, she herself had no experience with gaming. My criticisms weren't aimed at her thinking or writing or research, per se - no, my quibble was with nit-picky details that didn't quite ring true.

On the Inside Looking Out

One of the fascinating bits of being an academic is that we can attain "expert" status while being "outsiders." For some of us, our outsider status is almost a given. It's impossible for me to be an "insider" when writing about the late nineteenth century or the 1930s or even the 1980s. And really, that's OK. Generations of social scientists and academics in the humanities have built careers and a sizeable body of work and solid conclusions while being outsiders. The dissonance comes when dealing with topics where "insider" status is a necessary for "expert" status. In the gaming world, outsiders don't generally become experts -- writers don't get picked up just because they can write well on any subject. A certain hands-on familiarity with our subject is demanded of us. It is almost a given that gaming is part of our daily life, independent of writing - something that is impossible to replicate when I'm looking at, say, 1930s advertisements.

Allison, a fine anthropologist who has a fascinating body of work on Japan, was clearly an outsider. And it occurred to me that as people (academics) get more and more interested in gaming of various forms, virtual worlds, and the like, the more of this sort of scholarship we're going to see. At this point in time, I think many people are still a little too lost when it comes to, say, MMOs to write an article tackling the issue - I chatted with one of my advisors, who is a technophobe in his daily life but reasonably enthusiastic regarding subjects that aren't widely studied yet (in his case, film, and most recently underground and independent film in China), about my plans to do a more current look at the Chinese gaming milieu. To my great surprise, he thought it was a fabulous idea, and added that plenty of academics would like to look at such issues in China and Korea, but don't know where to start.

But what about when people do start realising where those starting points are? Do we have whole books to look forward to that just "don't get it"? And really, who am I to say another academic just doesn't "get it," when their scholarship is otherwise unimpeachable? Am I privileging the fan voice? Am I engaging in the same sort of behaviour that privileges the 'native' voice -- the idea that, say, my Chinese friends are simply more capable of being good Chinese historians than I? It's not so much an issue of privileging as a difference on opinion as to what constitutes 'expert' status. Anne Allison -- as fine an anthropologist as she is -- wouldn't stand a chance of attaining 'expert' status with her writing about the game industry. It's clear from her writing that she is an 'outsider.' But where oh where are those insiders? How is it that I study at a school that houses people like Noah Wardrip-Fruin of Grand Text Auto, and I still get the curious stare when delineating my weekend responsibilities?

Inside Out, Outside In

Part of my problem when grappling with this issue is that I simply cannot break away from my disciplinary boundaries. Oh, sure, an article here or there is one thing, but the idea of writing my dissertation or staking my career on gaming? Even if I could convince my advisors — a dubious proposition at best — I just couldn't bring myself to make the leap. I'm sure I'm not the only person facing such a dilemma. While game studies provides a safe haven for many people, it never would've occurred to me to go to graduate school for it — I'm not sure I'd even been particularly happy. I like what I study, but I also like branching out — and I have a suspicion that means I'm going to be sandwiched in between two fields that don't really want my work, at least as it relates to gaming.

Systemic change is difficult to affect in academia. Critiques of the 'traditional' academic structure abound, and there are plenty of people trying to think 'outside the box.' Unfortunately, even the "outside of the boxers" frequently wind up reinforcing the box — it's difficult to get outside the structure totally. Our studies and careers are predicated on being able to fit into some category or another. Specialisation is the name of the game, and once something gets really entrenched, it frequently becomes a means to an end.

The Afterlives of Game Studies?

I admit I harbour some suspicion for '_______ studies' programs, be it 'Asian studies' or 'American studies' or 'game studies.' This stems partly from the fact that area studies (of which East Asian 'studies' is an honoured part) is the granddaddy of all those other studies programs — which means we've had considerably more time to ruminate on the meaning of our 'field' and the benefits and limitations of the (in theory) multidisciplinary approach to a particular area. We also have a collection of books with frightening (for a youngster at the beginning of his or her career) titles such as Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies, with even more terrifying essays contained within. The great cynics of area studies make scientists' doom and gloom predictions about global warming sound positively cheery in comparison.

One of the greatest critiques is that despite the best intentions of most of these sorts of programs, they frequently wind up becoming an end unto themselves — not a space for a variety of disciplines to gather, but a discipline in and of itself. I have the utmost respect for many of the 'game studies' academics I've had the pleasure of having exchanges with, but I have to wonder where the field is going to be in 20 or 30 years — will we be seeing a volume entitled Playing Games: The Afterlives of Game Studies? One would hope not, but surveying the scene from the area studies corner of the Academy leaves me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. While I don't think Ian Bogost et al. need to worry about being put in service to the 21st century equivalent of the Cold War, I'd be surprised if some of the same things that have tripped up area studies don't wind up being obstacles for our much younger disciplinary cousin.

Blundering Towards Enlightenment

At the Kotaku pre-E3 party, an MA student introduced himself to me and queried me regarding my academic path. He expressed some surprise when I said I was an histor ian — 'Oh, but I thought you were in game studies?'. He looked mildly disappointed when I said no, just a boring modern Chinese historian here. It got me thinking — will 'game studies' become an exclusive club, like many other 'studies' are? What boxes on the CV are we going to have to mark to be considered valid and serious researchers of games? How is the discipline hierarchy going to shake out?

There are clearly a lot of interesting and creative people currently working on gaming in an academic context, and I sincerely hope that 'game studies' continues to be a place where academics from a variety of disciplines (but common research theme) have space to share. I hope that even the older and stodgier disciplines like my own will begin to come around to the idea that games and gaming are legitimate fields of inquiry, and valid sources to draw from. This, perhaps, is the greatest challenge: academics are frequently cranky and highly defensive of their respective disciplines. Many of us do cross boundaries with ease, but it can be a tough row to hoe when it comes to breaking new paths, especially when it comes to what constitutes an appropriate source base. It took quite some time for film to develop into an accepted source for historical study, for example, and students of material culture still find themselves up against a brick wall when talking to certain colleagues.

I'll admit that I won't be upsetting the apple cart in history any time soon — I wouldn't be allowed to write my dissertation on such a 'new' topic as gaming or virtual worlds in China, even if I wanted to, and it would probably be academic suicide (at least as far as traditional history departments are concerned). That doesn't mean I'm not going to throw my hat into the ring, of course — but trailblazing visionary/rebel I am not, at least not when it comes to arguing for games. I already have a little notebook with references, citations, and impressions for my not-so-far-away article, but the constraints of working within a reasonably stuffy discipline mean that until I have tenure, it's a sideline. An interesting and productive sideline, but a sideline nonetheless. I do hope that there will be room for my future students to manoeuvre between the rigid, traditional structure and the 'upstart' fields like game studies.

Game studies, like any discipline, will be going through growing pains — we've been writing histories for thousands of years and it seems that every year brings some new problem that needs to be hashed out. Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer addressed some of these issues in a recent interview that appeared on GameSetWatch:

... there is already a field called game studies, and some of us aren't comfortable with where that's going or don't feel we quite fit in there. Game studies is taking a fairly traditional academic approach to research and scholarship, and as a professor who has done my share of papers and conferences, I'm trying to go another way. I want to write about games at the place where they are being discussed most vigorously, online and amongst gamers. I greatly respect what game studies is doing - and I've benefited from this work - but I've reached the point in my career where I'm not terribly interested in traditional academic research anymore.

In many respects, we're coming from the same position and, at the same time, pretty far apart. It's not that I'm not interested in traditional academic research regarding games, I'm simply interested in it on my own terms - and in my own field. I wonder, though, if that leaves me on the outside looking in and the inside looking out. It's an odd gap to straddle — I just hope it's not an impossibly wide gap to bridge.


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