This article traces a limited affective history of game studies in order to understand why marginalized scholars frequently feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in the field. Following the work of Clare Hemmings and Sara Ahmed, it digs into the inaugural issue of the journal Game Studies as well as the infamous narratology-versus-ludology debate to understand how the anxious and emotional rhetoric of the early game studies field imaginary created an environment hostile to the political perspectives of feminist studies and other political scholarly fields. It introduces the concept of “scholarly negging” to account for the gendered emotional manipulation enacted by men who seek to control the field's terms of conversation.
In the wake of the 2019 Islamophobic mass shootings at multiple locations in Christchurch, New Zealand, a conversation thread on the email listserv of the Digital Games Research Association began with the seemingly innocent question of whether anyone had done research on links between gaming culture and the recent resurgence of right-wing extremism in global politics. For many members of the list, myself included, the question was a demonstration of a painful and frustrating phenomenon: the work of marginalized authors is less visible in the admittedly vast multidisciplinary confederation known as game studies. I responded as much to the group, pointing out that many women, especially those who are queer and/or of color, have been writing about the hostility festering in gaming and tech cultures for decades (often because we ourselves are frequently the targets of such behavior), although our perspectives have largely been ignored or actively challenged in the field. The responses that followed proved the point. A number of commentators were more concerned with the reputation of video games than the shooter's obvious cultivation of gaming culture and aesthetics to create a media event. One contributor wanted us all to know that Islam is a fundamentally violent religion. Another, despite being a tenured department chair, accused a woman graduate student of attempting to silence him. And more. I myself received a response from a tenured man who espoused support for my perspectives in public while privately chastening that it was unwise for me to have challenged his ideas in an open forum. With no moderators to step in and clarify what types of claims and statements were acceptable on this professional email list, the more shocking and racist sentiments were allowed to reverberate and set the tone of the conversation, despite any challenges that followed.
It's no wonder that marginalized researchers—Islamic folks, people of color, women, queers, and more—feel unwelcome in game studies.
Many feminist researchers have discussed, mostly in private, the emotional consequences of participating in a scholarly community that feels hostile toward us.1 In the email thread described above, Gabriela Richard noted the “disturbing trend” that the voices of women of color are silenced and dismissed in the field, often because others see their work as too interdisciplinary. Emma Vossen has documented the “general feeling of exclusion or lack of belonging within the field among marginalized groups.”2 Aubrey Anable has described feeling “like a fraud” writing about video games and feminist affect theory because of her “spotty history” with video games.3 Sal Humphreys has used her own experience of sexist and homophobic harassment in the 1970s to provide context for her understanding of the processes that exclude feminist perspectives from mainstream gaming and game studies cultures.4 Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw allude to the similarity of experiences between feminist critics of video games inside and outside of the academy, and recount their experience when Gamergate came to call on an academic conference.5 Carly Kocurek recently tweeted about her “abject rage about frequently feeling unwelcome in [her] own field.”6 Certainly concerns for personal safety have increased in the wake of widespread harassment campaigns and an uptick in harassment, hate crimes, and hateful rhetoric in our most hallowed academic spaces, but what if we treat this as more than mere paranoid speculation regarding which of us might be the next target?7 What if there really is something hostile about the feelings produced by an entire field of study?
Feelings saturate the purportedly neutral scene of academic argument. This is true of all academic disciplines, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, but the public nature of arguments about video games, from prime time talk shows to halls of legislation to the wilds of the internet, forces a binary choice on those who would call themselves scholars: Are you for video games, or against them? Our claims to expertise in the critique and analysis of video games require us to prove our passion for them as well, lest we become swept up in the anti-intellectual furor against the mean mommies, fascist legislators, and angry feminists seeking to take games away from everyone everywhere—what Katherine Cross calls the “‘terror dream’ that sees us reliving the paternalistic past and lashing out at all criticism in the hopes of keeping the grasping hands of the censor at bay.”8 To earn “game studies capital,” one feels pressure to earn “gaming capital”: to be a gamer or a game creator, whose (re)production of games proves one's allegiance to the future of video games.9 To be a gamer, one must love video games, in the right way, or run the risk of ridicule, harassment, and rape threats that will ruin your emotional health and put you under threat of direct physical harm.
The precarious position of the acafan, as we call these lover-haters of popular culture, amplifies the anxious feelings associated with academia generally.10 Will I get a job? Will my contract get renewed? Will I have to move? Will I have health insurance? Will my students put videos of me on YouTube? Will someone charge my classroom with a gun? All of these questions float in the backs of our minds as we work through crafting the purportedly neutral arguments that form the actual basis for hiring and advancement. Will I score the big grant? Will I publish this paper before the conversation moves on? Is my argument original enough? Am I citing the right people? Will my reviewers be kind?
It's no wonder that feminist critics feel precarious in game studies: feminist critics, like most academics, are precarious everywhere. Yet the specificity with which feminist critics identify their isolation within larger fields bears further scrutiny. For example, Sara Ahmed uses Ama Ata Aidoo's figure of the killjoy to describe how feminists function to disrupt feelings of group unity in a number of settings because of their propensity to point out difficult truths about inequalities in social and structural power.11 Similarly, Barbara Tomlinson traces the figure of the “angry feminist” as it travels in disputes in and about the field of musicology.12 For the feminist working and writing on games, the burden of being a killjoy within game studies is amplified by the fact that many of us face skepticism about video games from colleagues, administrators, and students while presenting our work within fields that are otherwise more receptive to political critiques and identity knowledges. Feminist game studies scholars face unique pressures when attempting to create networks of intellectual peers.
This essay is a small offering to aid the work of making sense of what Robyn Wiegman calls the “field imaginary” as it operates in the scholarly constellation we know as game studies. Much more than a set of disciplinary practices, a field imaginary includes “the affective force that constitutes the psychic life of a field”—those internalized expectations that structure whom we cite, how we interact with one another, and even which questions we find most interesting.13 Indeed, as a complex arrangement of intersecting disciplines orbiting around a cluster of objects of study (an arrangement we may or may not consider coherent enough to call an interdiscipline), game studies scholars labor under the methodological and affective structures of multiple field imaginaries simultaneously. Some of the trouble experienced by marginalized scholars within game studies could simply be a clash of imagination: while the field imaginaries of feminist studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, and disability studies keep politics close to the center of discourse, game studies has no such consistent tendency as a field, despite the efforts of individual scholars who have been working on identity, politics, and games for decades. Indeed, the political dimensions of video games were neglected (or outright rejected) by the authors and works that many recognize as the founding texts of game studies. This is partially, of course, a result of gamers' rejection of the political, which has its origins in histories of government regulation, moral panic, and toxic masculinity.14 However, it is also important to locate this rejection in the scholarly origins of the field.
To tease out the contemporary field imaginary of game studies, we must look to its origins. I began this article by outlining the importance of citational and affective politics to the creation of a field imaginary. Next, I explore the feelings generated by early writing about game studies as a field coming into its own. In particular I focus on the inaugural issue of Game Studies, an open-source journal whose first editorial proclaimed 2001 as “Computer Game Studies, Year One,” as well as what field insiders call the “narratology versus ludology” debates that took place over a number of publications in the years after the issue.15 I argue that the rhetorical and affective work to claim territory for game studies as a field during this period set a tone that was dismissive of, if not outright hostile to, the political perspectives of fields like feminist studies. More than this, however, the early discourse performed by scholars affiliating with this particular construction of the field created a gendered politics that excluded women in particular, which manifested in citation practices and affective strategies that reverberate to this day. I have labeled the latter practice a form of scholarly negging, after the tactics of emotional manipulation employed by explicitly antifeminist and misogynist online communities.
“Negging” refers to a strategy of subtly insulting a woman in order to make her feel insecure and therefore more receptive to a man's romantic advances. It emerges from the so-called pickup-artist community, which has developed an explicitly antifeminist set of dating strategies for men who feel they do not get the sexual attention they deserve from women, a phenomenon they frequently blame on feminist politics. I use negging in this context not to suggest any libidinal dynamics in the game studies community (though it would certainly also apply to the even more taboo topic of sexual harassment within the field, which I will not discuss here), but as a way to name the strategy of emotional manipulation (such as inducing feelings of vulnerability via the language of colonization and feelings of inadequacy via insults about lack of rigor) that created the early field imaginary of game studies and persists to this day. Calling this negging also exposes the patently gendered dimensions of this behavior, a masculinist response to perceived inadequacy in academic spaces by making a scholar's arguments seem comparatively much more measured and rigorous at the expense of a “phantom” group of interlocutors whose avatar was a woman. In my examples here she is Janet Murray, who stands in for a number of other women and men writing from what became known as the narratologist perspective.16
As I seek to understand these dynamics within the field imaginary of game studies, I am also aware of the ways in which such work can be used to create new forms of hegemony. In her study of the field formation of feminist theory, Clare Hemmings argues that shared affect forges a field-specific subjectivity that is particularly vulnerable to cooptation for anti- and postfeminist political machinations, in part because authors always imagine themselves as the heroes of their own stories about feminism.17 In some ways, this is inevitable: storytellers are the ones who give heroes the gift of life. Victors write history books. Yet what I find most compelling about Hemmings's hero narrative is that it accounts for the ways that making scholarship is an act that produces an idealized subject: in this case, the scholar whose narrative about feminist theory holds the key to pushing the discipline forward.
Who is the idealized game studies subject? I ask this question with no small amount of self-awareness; the answer will always, inevitably, be “me.” But Hemmings insists that we must resist such heroic retellings and experiment “with how we might tell stories differently rather than [tell] different stories.”18 Shifting citation practices to uncover a truer form of game studies is not the point. I take to heart Hemmings's suggestion that feminist theory deserves a proliferation of acceptable voices rather than a shift in what we consider the acceptable voice of the field, and I think game studies could benefit from a similar kind of opening up, a sentiment expressed by a number of scholars in the field.19 I hope to approach the stories told about our field's emergence not to attempt to provide more correct accounts of how we got where we are, but rather to suggest that designating any perspective as “correct” impoverishes our intellectual and political possibilities.
So: I am here to pinpoint some (but not all) of the origins of the uneasy feelings of my fellow feminist game studies scholars and to trouble the notion that there is an ideal game studies subject who should be doing this work, whether that subject is a narrativist, a ludologist, a scientist, an anthropologist, or a feminist. Other scholars have made compelling accounts of game studies field history drawing from bibliometric data that charts citational relationships across a large body of work, tracing grand narratives to understand the contours of the field.20 Such large-scale approaches, however, are not as useful when attempting to resist totalizing disciplinary narratives, nor are they adept at capturing structures of feeling—or at least, they have not yet been applied to this challenge. This article focuses on close readings of a narrow range of publications in order to target the specific origin of this segment of game studies as well as to unpack some particular moments of development in its field imaginary.
THE AFFECTIVE POLITICS OF FIELD FORMATION
By understanding the role that feelings play in shaping academic communities, we enter into a more honest and thorough reckoning with the possibilities and limitations of what academic work can do. For game studies, these are no small stakes: situated between popular culture, media industrial production, and technological development, the video game has far-reaching implications across a number of powerful cultural and economic centers. Even in the current moment of increased attention to scholarship engaging with identity knowledges and cultural politics, it is important to attend to the ways that feelings circulate in our academic communities, in part to ensure that our labor, as Soraya Murray warns, is not merely instrumentalized to make an institution (or a conference, or a journal) look like its work of cultural change is complete.21 Affect has a way of exposing where obstacles continue to exist even when we cannot identify or talk about them explicitly. Feeling bad or feeling good (or feeling good about feeling bad) all reveal important power dynamics at work in our scholarly exchanges.22
The affective politics of academic disciplines have long been a feminist concern, in part because feminist criticism refuses an artificial divide between mind and body, material and immaterial, domestic and professional, personal and political. When women's bodies, nonwhite bodies, disabled bodies, queer bodies, and other nonnormative bodies occupy a space that was not meant for them, they can't help but become aware of the ways that the space feels unsuited to them. Sara Ahmed uses space as a metaphor in her understanding of not only citation practices, those “academic bricks through which we create houses,” but also the affective politics of field formation: “Theory is a social landscape like any other.”23 Decades earlier, Audre Lorde described the feelings that shape encounters between Black feminists and those in the feminist community who failed to consider their needs and priorities in their academic gatherings.24 Feminist analysis of equity, power, and structure lends itself well to a concern with institutional forms, in both physical and metaphorical terms. Even when such analysis is imperfectly applied—evidenced by the continual history of missteps, corrections, and internal debates within and between activist and academic feminist communities—the turmoil of feminist politics comes from a perpetual commitment to pursuing justice in its shifting forms. Attending to the ways we work together is a crucial part of this.
In 2011 Hemmings set out to unravel the “political grammar of feminist theory”—the set of storytelling practices and tropes that shaped how academic feminists tell the story of their discipline. Finding deep structural similarities among ostensibly different narratives about the history of feminist studies, she pushes readers to think about how storytelling strategies, in terms of both citation practices and the affects that such stories cultivate, shape the possibilities of the field. For example she finds that the popular trope of “progression” narratives, in which feminist theory is seen to improve incrementally over subsequent decades, has the tendency to silo the contributions of Black, women of color, and lesbian feminists to the 1980s, and also to close them off as having completed their work of changing the field. The feelings generated by the different types of narrative tropes that she covers (in the case of the progression narratives, something like pride or pleasure in surmounting the difficulties of the past) serve to bind feminist subjects under a “shared affective state, if not shared emotions.”25 As Ahmed points out, communities are forged by shared feelings: “In order to get along, you have to participate in certain forms of solidarity: you have to laugh at the right points.”26 Those who do not do so ruin the mood and expose fractures in the group.
It is time to subject our field to an affective analysis to discover where good and bad feelings point toward imbalances of power. In the next section I turn to the inaugural issue of the journal Game Studies to look at the citation practices and affective landscape of its most prominent articles in an effort to begin locating some possible origins of bad feelings in game studies. Following the work of Hemmings and Ahmed, whose analyses of the disciplinary history of feminist theory center questions of affect and citation politics, I argue that the anxious border work that characterized early conversations in game studies continues to resonate, diffusing exclusionary but concrete citation practices into the alienating landscape of feelings that feminists identify in the field today. Contemporary feminists' concerns about the place of their work and their bodies in the field is a remarkable parallel to the affective consequences of the more overtly violent practices of the internet harassers that academics often like to point toward when asked to explain the gender divide in gaming culture. Understanding that the field imaginary of game studies is constituted by a history of anxiety about precarity and being taken seriously as scholars independent of other media can help us to intervene in the toxic politics that continue to devalue the work of marginalized folks and identity knowledges in game studies.
INAUGURAL ANXIETIES: COLONIZING YEAR ONE
No scholarly field is an inevitability. Researchers had been writing about games in society throughout the twentieth century.27 Video games had been gaining cultural prominence since the 1970s, and a small but growing number of academics had been paying attention. In the 1980s, psychologists, educators, and leisure researchers began to think and write about video games from a variety of perspectives.28 And yet when scholars recite the history of game studies as a discipline, they often tell a story that begins in the late 1990s or early 2000s.29 Certainly there was an increase in scholarship dealing with games at that time, but this narrative owes much to the formation of the Game Studies academic journal in 2001.
The existence of game studies as an academic field was a historical achievement, not an inevitability, produced by a relatively small group of scholars who convinced a growing community that it was necessary to create a field independent of others in order to preserve the integrity and future of their work. Game studies (more specifically computer game studies) was the label claimed by the editors and authors of the first issue of the journal Game Studies. I follow Hemmings's strategies of re-citation and affective mobilization to think about what this first journal issue tells us about game studies' past and future. How might we change our approach to telling the history of game studies so that our work can better engage the pressing political issues of today, and address the continual failure of game studies to intervene in public conversations about video games and its refusal to protect its own community members from hostile attacks?
I find it curious that we all take for granted the truth that it was necessary for game studies to fight for its independence from other disciplines and field imaginaries. This is a claim repeated across multiple retellings of the history of game studies, yet it is a truth that is impossible to verify.30 Games were being studied before these battles played out, but game studies only exists as a field imaginary thanks to the pugilistic posturing of its forefathers. This is the story told by the first issue of Game Studies, which as I mentioned above planted a flag on 2001 as “Game Studies, Year One.”
What did it mean to be the first-ever game studies journal? What stories did it tell of the field? Whose voices did it use to tell those stories? Let's look at some numbers to start. Seven pieces: one editorial, four pieces of criticism, and two reviews. Six authors: five men, one woman; five white and hailing from the Global North, one from South America. Their institutional affiliations at the time of writing are also worthy of note: two independent scholars (one based in the United States and one in Europe), two faculty (one at a US institution and one at a European institution), and two graduate students, also split between US and European institutions. Of seventy-five citations across seven articles, twelve have at least one woman author, with a total of eight unique women cited in the entire issue, compared to forty-one unique men. Seven of the twelve citations of women (five unique authors) are contained within a single article, the only article in the journal authored by a woman.
If demographics matter even a little bit, the inaugural issue of Game Studies sculpted its year one in a fairly uniform image. There is the notable shared presence of European and US scholars, but authors and citation practices point toward a white, Western, masculine field in development, with little connection to (or interest in) scholars or intellectual traditions beyond this narrow scope. The effects of this resonated widely forward: the three top-cited articles from the issue (cited as of this writing 940, 861, and 720 times) were written by white men who are widely recognized as forefathers of the field, who together cited three women in their articles.31 The fourth most cited piece, written by a woman, stands at 451 citations. It is the only other piece in the issue to break one hundred citations.
Ahmed writes, “I think as feminists we can hope to create a crisis around citation, even just a hesitation, a wondering, that might help us not to follow the well-trodden citational paths.”32 In so doing, we break with the legacies handed down to us in the decades since this inaugural journal. Contemporary writing about game studies field formation draws attention to the omission of women and people of color in game studies bibliographies. Kishonna Gray introduced the hashtag #CiteHerWork specifically to push back against the tendency in game studies and video game journalism to neglect women authors.33 Adrienne Shaw offers an alternative genealogy of game studies that deepens the history of the field, challenging herself to tell the story of the field without citing white cisgendered men or anything after 2006, an echo of the self-imposed field-building work of Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life (2017): “In this book I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men.”34 It is crucial to note that by “white men” she means not an identity category, but rather an institution that has come to substitute for an entire possible system of knowledge creation. Shaw's deployment also speaks less to a simplistic form of identity politics and more to systemic biases in game studies epistemology. The resulting paper produces a bibliography that is full of feminist scholarship about video games and also full of women who were writing about games in the years preceding the Game Studies inaugural issue, almost none of whom were cited by its authors.
Indeed, by positioning itself as the real beginning of game studies, the issue erased this earlier history of work on video games that is full of women authors and feminist approaches. Shaw's citational provocation begs the question of where these voices, some of whom had been working on games for decades—Patricia Greenfield, Marsha Kinder, Brenda Laurel, Marie Laure-Ryan, Elizabeth Loftus, Janet Murray, and more—have gone in the intervening years. Similar concerns have been expressed by others regarding the seeming uniformity of ideas in game studies. Souvik Mukherjee and Emil Lundedal Hammar write in their introduction to the 2018 Open Library of the Humanities special collection on “Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies” that game studies seems to “continue the postcolonial tradition” of centering Western (US-focused and Eurocentric) views on video games.35
Various scholars have recognized how the inaugural issue of Game Studies displayed the anxieties of a field's zealous attempts to define its boundaries. Indeed, several pieces in that issue take turns describing the perilous life of a fledging discipline:
Making room for a new field usually means reducing the resources of the existing ones, and the existing fields will also often respond by trying to contain the new area as a subfield. Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonising attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. And again, until computer game studies emerges as a clearly self-sustained academic field.36
The narrative turn of the last 20 years has seen the concept of narrative emerge as a privileged master concept in the description of all aspects of human society and sign-production. … With any sufficiently broad definition of x, everything will be x. This rapidly expands the possible uses of a theory but also brings the danger of exhaustion, the kind of exhaustion that eventually closes departments and feeds indifference.37
Historically speaking this is a bit like the 1910s in film studies; there were attractions, practices and very little understanding of what was actually going on, not to mention lots of money to be made and lost.38
Game studies in this early imagination is full of potential and riches, yet vulnerable for this very reason. The language of conquest is pervasive, from the “struggle of controlling and shaping the theoretical paradigms” to “predatory theory formations” that threaten field integrity.39 The anxiety is palpable!
Of particular interest are the warnings about colonization, made without any sense of irony regarding the privileged position from which academics in the Global North speak. In addition to the quotation above, a second author also invokes it: “If and when games and especially computer games are studied and theorized they are almost without exception colonized from the fields of literary, theatre, drama and film studies.”40,Game Studies 1, no. 1, imagines a struggle “to gain independence, or at least relative independence” from other fields.41 Many scholars have written about the ludologists' use of divisive language and its role in defining the field—what Kevin Moberly calls the “preemptive strikes” and Gerald Voorhees characterizes as “raising a banner for scholars [to] rally around”—rhetorical strategies intended to control the scene of argument around video games.42 These two scholars recognize that what is at stake here is not the usual pride in one's scholarly argument, but rather the right to put a stamp on a new field of study.
I would like to add to this discussion that the use of the language of colonization is, above all, a strategic invocation of the imagined feelings of the colonized to create a sense of urgency and, ultimately, of community: we are vulnerable, we are under threat, they are taking what is rightly ours. Moberly was the first to catch on to this explicit use of emotions to suggest a colonial (albeit otherworldly) encounter, comparing early game studies discourse to the Alien vs. Predator franchise, a clash of invading forces that tramples over the scholars minding their own business and doing their work.43 This comparison captures the reality that colonization is an expressly asymmetrical encounter, which is used here to justify defense by any means necessary—a phenomenon that I will trace in the next section.
To which subjects does this affective appeal call? Certainly not the folks in literary, theater, drama, or film studies. As Emma Vossen writes of her own feelings of being hailed by these authors, “How could I, as someone with three degrees in English Literature, see myself as anyone but ‘them’?”44 One author in Game Studies 1, no. 1, even casts new media studies as a “pseudo-field” invented “to claim computer-based communication for visual media studies.”45 And yet, most of the authors in the inaugural issues themselves emerged from these or adjacent programs. Janet Murray has called this the “anxiety of influence” that induces sons to cast down their fathers.46 Eric Zimmerman characterizes it as “the notion that ideas are most authentic when they tear down an authority.”47 Whatever the underlying motivation, this particular affective structure of loyalty to game studies requires disloyalty to one's own disciplinary home, a demand that entails different types of sacrifice depending on which disciplines one feels most affinity toward. Indeed, Moberly points out that the structure of these early debates was such that cultural critique (which he characterizes as “Marxist and poststructuralist” and Vossen expands to include “feminist”) sits outside of the discourse entirely.48 For those centered in the identity knowledges of feminist, queer, ethnic, and disability studies, disciplinary disloyalty predicated on a disavowal of narrative and representation is also bound up in a disavowal of the political.
Take the example of Tetris, a game repeatedly invoked in early discourses around game studies field formation. In 1997 Janet Murray interpreted the game as a symbolic drama, “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s.”49 This interpretation became a point of contention in Game Studies 1, no. 1, with one author offering a particularly vehement rejection: “The explanation for this interpretative violence seems to be equally horrid: the determination to find or forge a story at any cost, as games can't be games because if they were, they apparently couldn't be studied at all.”50 The phrase “interpretative violence” in particular has remained in recent memory, in part due to what Brendan Keogh describes as its “crassness.”51
While other authors do not explicitly cite Murray's interpretation of Tetris, they do cite other portions of her book and then critique a narrative reading of Tetris elsewhere in their article. For example: “Tetris does not have a visible actor either, and it does not seem possible to construct any actor controlling the falling bricks” is an implicit rejection of Murray's description of the structure of a symbolic drama.52 Moreover: “A game such as Tetris represents the lowest degree of narrativity, because ‘fitting blocks of various shapes into slots as they fall from the top of the screen’ is hardly interpretable as the pursuit of human interests in a concrete situation,” an implicit rejection of Murray's narrative reading.53
While the disagreement over Tetris is often cast in terms of privileging narrative over game play, commenters neglect the fact that Murray was also reading politics explicitly onto Tetris. Her commentary about overtasked American workers was preceded by a brief reading of the ideological structure of Monopoly, a fundamentally anti-capitalist game, as “an enactment of the allures and disappointments of a zero-sum economy in which one gets rich by impoverishing one's neighbors.”54 By placing these together, Murray suggests that anti-capitalist critique lurks in the symbolic drama of Tetris, perhaps to radicalize the worker and awaken them to their condition in the manner of what we know today, contentiously, as empathy games. I contend that part of the visceral reaction to Murray's reading is the rejection not only of layering narrative onto game play, but of layering politics as well. Indeed, one of the authors critical of the narrative reading of Tetris makes a curious nod to the political force of narrative in this footnote: “The narrativity of Tetris would increase if the player stimulated herself by imagining that she is a slave building a wall from bricks thrown at her at an increasing rate by a sadistic master, and that she will survive only as long as she is not buried under the falling blocks.”55 This recognition of the power struggle between player and game echoes the overtasked American workers while explicitly renouncing their possibility in the main text. Both of these narrativizations also signal an attempt to grapple with the emotions of game play in ways that the ludologist framework, in its emphasis on game structures and the precision of theoretical terminology, could not have begun to address.
Emphatic rejection of the political under the guise of representation exists elsewhere in the early game studies canon. For example, there is the proclamation that “the dimensions of Lara Croft's body, already analyzed to death by film theorists, are irrelevant to me as a player.” This merges the rejection of film theorists (established by Game Studies 1, no. 1) with a rejection of the political critique implicit when invoking Lara Croft's measurements, which were a source of early criticism by feminist (including feminist game studies) critics.56 When pressed on the inextricability of representation and game play in the case of Lara Croft, the author doubles down on the strict separation between representation and game play in an early instance of asserting what Brendan Keogh calls the “purity complex of game studies.”57 We may attribute this purity to a real concern with theoretical rigor, as the ludologists consistently claimed, but it is impossible to separate this from the political context of video games in larger society, which at the turn of the twenty-first century had already been beset by numerous scandals about violence and sexual content as well as moral panics about the games' effects on children and subsequent efforts to censor them (with one of the most intense censorship campaigns yet to come in 2005). If one of the primary concerns expressed in Game Studies 1, no. 1, is that of securing funding for the field, then distancing the work from political scandal, whether conscious or not, must have been important as well.
Game Studies 1, no. 1, produced a field imaginary built on precarity and anxiety about its standing in the academy, partly because it imagined a zero-sum game of academic funding in which the new field's access to the riches of the academy are directly threatened by other disciplinary claims on the object of study. The issue traded in some remarkably emotional language to invoke both vulnerability as well as the injustice of colonization, creating an affective structure of allegiance to the emerging field predicated on a rejection of other methodologies. However, the rejection of representational analysis (in the form of narrative or visual studies, which also comes under fire), as we see in the case of Tetris (and, later, Lara Croft), masks a deeper mistrust of politics in games. I contend that this mistrust was also bound up in the political scandal facing games at the time; and, indeed, if this did not surface as a specific point of conversation in Game Studies 1, no. 1, it was present in other early conversations in the field, including within other issues of Game Studies, oriented primarily around defending games from accusations that they cause violence.58
SCHOLARLY NEGGING: THE AFFECTIVE LEGACY OF NARRATOLOGY VERSUS LUDOLOGY
The broader context in which Game Studies 1, no. 1, existed was the infamous narratology versus ludology debates, a set of field-building arguments about whether the proper methodology of game studies analysis could emerge from disciplines like literary or film studies, or whether it needed to be created by scholars dedicated to the study of games. While many scholars wish to leave the debate in the past, I find it necessary to elaborate it here in order to unpack its affective, rather than theoretical, consequences for the field, to understand some of the specific mechanisms these writers deploy in their “effort to define and therefore control the nature of the field.”59 And while many scholars recognize the power struggle hiding beneath the theoretical posturing, it is only recently that scholars like Moberly, Vossen, and Janet Murray have begun to point out that these power moves operated less on logic than on emotional appeal.60
Most scholars trained in game studies are familiar with the “interpretative violence” claim against Murray's reading of Tetris that I discussed in the previous section—that reverberating insult about the inappropriateness of applying ideological critique to video games. I traced how the emotional landscape produced by Game Studies 1, no. 1, was a key part of the strategy of game studies' early field formation. However, another reason this claim continues to circulate today is because Murray continued to address it as it resurfaced in game studies discourse, dragging her name along with it. In her 2016 update to Hamlet on the Holodeck (originally published in 1997), she goes on at length about the feelings surrounding the moment:
The analysis of Tetris as a symbolic emotional drama was largely misinterpreted and aggressively targeted in the initial issue of the journal Game Studies, becoming part of the ludology/narratology debate that was foundational to the field of Game Studies. The vehemence of the attack on my Tetris interpretation reflected academic politics in Europe, which was, indeed, a struggle between actual narratologists (unlike me) and the emerging self-proclaimed “ludologists,” but the contemptuous tone and personal nature of the rhetoric addressed to me which sought to delegitimize and silence rather than to engage, also suggests biases linked to nationality and gender.61
I reproduce this passage in full not only to examine how Murray's retrospective language validates the perceived early struggle of game studies, thereby contributing to the grand narrative established by Game Studies 1, no. 1, but also for how she connects the emotional critiques of her interpretation to sexism. Few scholars have been so bold, but Murray's suggestion here exposes a dynamic in the debate that the community has, with few exceptions, left politely unstated—or, at least, only stated in private until quite recently.
One notable exception to this is Emma Vossen, who has characterized narratology versus ludology in gendered terms and suggests that it has lingering effects on women and nonbinary graduate students in the field. Her work, which incorporates both autobiography and ethnography, features extensive interviews with early-career game studies academics who express reluctance to enter the field thanks to the early posturing of this debate, which has left them feeling as if game studies was a boys' club and not a space for feminist perspectives. One interviewee explicitly cites the aggressive response to Murray as proof of this.62 The field imaginary produced by this moment of scholarship, driven largely by affective structures of hostility intentionally put in place by early writers in the field, has tangible effects on who feels hailed by game studies today.
But Murray was not the only target, even if she was one of the most prominent women in the field at the time who was cited extensively with the intent of dismantling a simplistic version of her book's approach to narrative in games. Across the discourse that comprises the debate, from conference panels to book collections to peer-reviewed articles, there were far more insults against scholars who were never named: the phantom narratologists who constituted the primary bogeyman of the ludologists, whom many scholars agree didn't quite exist, but who provided the impetus for claims of colonization and lazy scholarship.63
The extent to which ludologists disclaim responsibility for this misunderstanding is significant. Writing at the time, one ludologist suggested that the “colonialist/imperialist issue” was a misunderstanding of the very real precarity of ludologists, but that reading this as a desire to eliminate other approaches was “excessive.”64 This particular piece offers direct quotes from certain authors that refute this notion of exclusionism. However, given the vehemence of the statements we have covered to this point, I read this as evidence of inconsistency and bad faith rather than actual concessions to inclusivity.65 Looking back many years later, another prominent ludologist claimed that the furor over narratology was in fact “a reaction to sloppy scholarship,” unfairly characterized as a ban on narrative approaches to games by those who “are less astute readers, scholars, and interpreters than their training gives them occasion to presume”—despite the explicit, well-documented statements by ludologists who sought, for example, “to annihilate for good the discussion of games and stories, narratives or cinema.”66 This language indeed clarifies some things about that period in the field's development—by placing it firmly in the territory of what I call scholarly negging.
Scholarly negging is a practice that keeps men in charge, in part by deflecting imposter syndrome preemptively onto those women and feminists arriving later and bearing witness to the way their perspectives, historically, have been regarded in the field. As I described in the introduction to this essay, I draw the terminology from antifeminist strategies of emotional manipulation that aim to trigger insecurity and leave the target more receptive to the arguments (or advances) of the negging party—and also more desiring of their approval. It shares qualities with gaslighting, a type of manipulation in which one is made to question one's own knowledge and experience; the ludologists' deflection of well-documented eliminationist rhetoric onto sloppy reading practices is illustrative here.
Nevertheless, the emotional machinations of scholarly negging in the field moved beyond Game Studies itself. Here is a sampling of language from First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (2004), which repeats many of the negging and colonization claims in Game Studies 1, no. 1, for a new and perhaps larger audience:
For example, as we shall soon see, if you actually know your narrative theory (instead of resorting to outdated notions of Aristotle, Propp, or Victorian novels) you won't argue that games are (interactive or procedural) narratives or anything even remotely similar.67
As with any land rush, the respect for local culture and history is minimal, while the belief in one's own tradition, tools, and competence is unfailing. Computer game studies is virgin soil, ready to be plotted and plowed by the machineries of cultural and textual studies.68
These disciplines [film and literary theory] have much to add to the discourse on games, particularly when the discussion is centered on narrative. However, they are missing a fundamental understanding of what games are about. … The result is a kind of theoretical imperialism.69
Those four terms have been stretched to fit everybody's pet theories, so becoming shapeless blobs. We are past due for a housecleaning of these words, a “back to basics” movement, a tightening-up of the terminology.70
Notably, First Person experimented with form in ways common to emerging disciplines at the time, particularly the digital humanities: it was launched as a website in collaboration with the electronic book review, and respondents used an online comment system to post their responses to individual chapters, to which the original authors would again respond. The print edition of the book contains the first round of comments, many of which amp up the snark in a manner consistent with the quasi-professional space of an online forum. While I will not detail the more flippant comments here, it provides more evidence for the heightened emotional state of early game studies scholarship.
At this point, it is important to note that game studies developed its field imaginary explicitly in conversation with platforms not historically associated with academic professionalism. While all academic fields have grappled publicly with the profound impact of blogging, tweeting, and other new modes of communication on their methodologies and conversations, fields like the digital humanities and game studies were forming their institutional identities and scholarly practices in conversation with these new technologies. The effects of this linger in such spaces as Game Studies, which is an online-only, open-access journal founded and operated by the same small group of scholars since 2001. Though it implements a rigorous system of peer review and publishes a variety of authors, this management strategy and pared-down, scrappy infrastructure calls to mind the independent blogger mentality of the 1990s and early 2000s. The First Person collection also shares this bloggish quality. Other important venues of field formation, such as the community forums Gameology and Terra Nova, have faded in memory thanks to citation practices that favor peer review, though many scholars (myself included) will name these sites as crucial to our development as members of the game studies community. We can only begin to guess what lingering effects this has on scholarly production.
It is impossible to understand the scholarly stakes of narratology versus ludology without coming to terms with all these emotional consequences, which include the interpellation of an ideal game studies subject. Indeed, many of the anti-ludology responses to narratology versus ludology were published on informal platforms like Terra Nova, which unlike First Person or Game Studies rarely gets cited as an academic publication.71 Although some, following Murray, credit the debate with introducing a kind of “computer games formalism” to the study of video games, the affective structures it has embedded in the field imaginary are arguably more lasting, and more detrimental.72 From Vossen's interview subjects expressing reluctance to do feminist work in the field to the generalized sense of anxiety and exasperation still expressed in private circles by scholars of marginalized identities, most of which cannot and will never be published or citable in the official record of the field, many of us feel the effects on our work and our embodied positions in the academy every single day.
Recently, a prominent scholar who once called for an embrace of the messiness of games and game studies wrote a piece claiming that video games are better without stories, which feminist critics Bianca Batti and Alisha Karabinus recognized as the same old epistemological gatekeeping resurrected from narratology versus ludology.73 No matter how many years pass and how many scholars claim the debate was uninteresting and inconsequential, it continues to shape the way we think and write about games to this day.
SHAPING THE IMAGINARY: NEGATING THE GAME STUDIES SUBJECT
I embarked on this journey with the goal of unpacking some specific and narrow moments of affect production in the history of our scholarly field, with the intent of locating some concrete origin for the inchoate discomfort expressed by many who identify as scholars in game studies today. In this incomplete accounting, I acknowledge that by focusing on the behaviors of major players in the early days of the discipline I have engaged in a storytelling practice that reinforces a very tired narrative that many feminist game studies scholars wish to rewrite. I hope to make up for this setback in various other ways, but I also hope that the citation practices and the emotional accounting I have performed here in some way validate the other, less publication-oriented work that needs to be done. We need new and different stories, but we also need to learn how to tell these stories differently.
This is more than a matter of theoretical rigor (though it is that, as well): game studies, as a scholarly community, repeatedly fails to secure safety or respect for the marginalized scholars in its midst. From the DiGRA 2014 Fishbowl panel being targeted by conspiracy theorists affiliated with Gamergate, to the CBC special on the alt-right that exposed four women to internet harassment, to the keynote speaker of the 2017 Foundation of Digital Games conference who engaged in a social media tirade against a junior feminist colleague in response to critiques of his talk, feminist game studies scholars have been repeatedly targeted and pursued by online harassers without substantial support from the community.74 I am surely not the only one to suggest that the strategies of boundary work enacted by early authors in the field resemble, in structure if not in vehemence, the anxious attacks of gamers against feminist critics as demonstrated in Gamergate and previous scandals like Feminist Frequency, Dickwolves, and Fat Princess. The exclusion of these scholars from the protection of the game studies community, the failure to understand their precarity as part of the precarity of game studies and academic knowledge generally, is a result of the lines we draw around notions of appropriate work in the field.
And yet it is important not to walk away with the least nuanced understanding of this problem, nor its least nuanced solution. This is not a matter of “men make women feel bad in gaming and game studies environments, therefore we need to create environments in which women feel welcome.” Ameliorating the feelings themselves rarely leads to a solution, as it frequently papers over dissent rather than results in meaningful change. Returning to Hemmings, I must insist that we adjust our storytelling practices when we talk about ourselves as a coherent field of study to encourage openness and experimentation rather than celebrating a more perfect game studies scholar that can emerge after applying this understanding of the field's history. This is not a matter simply of telling a different story that reincorporates the voices that were made marginal in the early 2000s (though this is an important task ahead of us as well), but rather about valorizing the multiplicity of approaches that exist around video games, and doing the harder work of making space for them all.
Indeed, some of our most pressing work as feminist scholars in game studies is to interrogate our own citational practices to ensure that we are writing our disciplinary stories in ways that honor the breadth of work that already exists. There is still room, for example, to expand how we talk about gender. As Gabriela Richard and Kishonna Gray point out, much foundational feminist work in game studies fails to consider ways in which gender oppression intersects with other marginalized identities. The feminist scholars who loom large in our heroic retellings of what Richard and Gray call the “third wave” and Jen Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm term our “Laura Mulvey moment” are inheriting a history that is largely white, straight, and cisgender.75 But there is time to find new ways to narrate how exactly we find ourselves here, in this moment.
Confronting the silences and omissions within our own writing is laborious and painful work, and it requires us to say things and point out omissions that might hurt one another's feelings. However, if we learn to negate a concept of the ideal game studies subject—to negate, in some sense, our own sense of ourselves as ideal interlocutors that understand the best approaches to work in the field—we might be able to perform this work without the defensiveness and fragility that attends heroic posturing. It is not easy to maintain this kind of subject position in the context of a neoliberal academy that trades citation as currency. However, feminist politics and the pursuit of social justice in gaming and game studies require us to interrogate ourselves and continually shift our approaches to power if we are ever to effect meaningful structural change.