Game Studies and Web 2.0: Finding an Audience Online
by: Zach Whalen / University of Florida
Those of us who study video games academically are fortunate to be doing so in the time of the Internet, when the ubiquity of list-serves, message boards, and – most importantly – blogs, allows communities to form and rapidly exchange ideas. Perhaps those who study and write about games as a professional activity are more likely to be technological early adopters, but these days it seems there is hardly a game scholar without a blog or other active web presence. And true to the spirit of Web 2.0, most of these blogs are branded with catchy names like “Ludology.org” (Gonzalo Frasca),
“shinySpinning.com” (Cindy Poremba), or Particle Stream (Julian Kucklich). In what follows, I want to discuss my own experiences attempting to step into that conversation and the sometimes surprising audiences I've found myself addressing through what is now the group blog at Gameology.org. I don't mean this as a “how to” guide or even a success story,[i] but my role as content creator and site administrator has allowed me to see the often strange and conflicting patterns of communication that emerge through negotiating an academic community within the larger community of the Web.
In 2003, a group of like-minded grad students and I at the University of Florida decided to step into the blog conversation with a blog site of our own. After some discussion over a domain name and upon stumbling across an amazing (for that time) web hosting deal, we launched Academic-Gamers.org in early 2004. I cobbled together a rudimentary Content Management System (CMS) using the minimalist blogging software, Blosxom, as its core[ii], and we began. Despite our blandly descriptive domain name, soon other sites were linking to ours and visitors were posting comments. As we attracted more attention, a number of colleagues and various contacts began to join our ranks. We hosted a conference at UF in 2005, and then another one in 2006, and as our bandwidth and hosting needs outgrew our original setup, we began to seek other options. After several months of development, during which our time and energy for blogging was hampered by our preparing for the second conference, we relaunched as the completely re-tooled and re-branded Gameology.org.
The new site used the far more robust CMS, Drupal, as its core, and with my newly found enthusiasm for tinkering with PHP, I spent weeks customizing modules and developing my own until the site became what it (hopefully) is today: a blog-oriented resource site for the game studies community. In addition to posting blog entries, reviews, and CFP announcements, we also host a database of screenshots and a bibliography (which actually supplies the backbone for the rest of the content). Overall, I think it's a useful resource that contributes something important to the academic conversation. At the same time, as I analyze traffic patterns and server logs, I wonder how we can gain new audiences and better address the community we already have. One lesson I've learned is that, while the basic assumption behind putting any content on the web is that what you have to say is important enough for someone else to read, what that person on the other end of the equation looks for as a reader isn't always predictable and will sometimes fly in the face of your best intentions.
Soon after we launched Gameology.org, I read a news story about a controversial Flash game making the rounds on the Web. The game was called Border Patrol, and though it later turned out that the game had been online for some years before, it was finding an audience amidst the escalated debate over U.S. immigration policy. The game crudely depicts Mexican stereotypes dashing across the U.S. / Mexico border, and invites players to defend that border by shooting the invading Mexicans. As someone studying games from an academic perspective, I saw on opportunity to provide some informed commentary on the game and the resulting controversy, so I wrote a blog entry titled “Border Patrol: Racist Political Flash Game” in which I discussed the tension in the game between the racial stereotypes and the activity of shooting, concluding that while the game is certainly offensive, it delivers most of its provocation through the cartoony portrayal of the stereotypes. The activity of shooting moving targets that are visually marked as “other” is nothing new to games, so putting stereotypical representations into that role simply places offensive caricature in a slightly different context.
Gonzalo Frasca at WaterCoolerGames.org posted a story of his own which linked back to mine, and as the story spread in the main stream media and other blogs, people searching Google to find out more information about the game or express their outrage over it increasingly found themselves on our site. One of the great things about Drupal is how well it automatically optimizes blog content for search engines, so because of the timing of my blog entry, I soon found my blog post among the top five results for queries like “border patrol game” or “racist flash game.” This ranked my story near or above the game itself and placed me in the dubious company of sites like Resist.com, an Aryan Resistance site which now hosts the game. The comments on my blog story began well, discussing the more subtle points of representation and simulation the game raises, but they quickly escalated to reactionary tirades alternately supporting or denouncing the game and anyone who would play or write about it. Water Cooler Games received a similar deluge, and to Ian Bogost and Frasca's credit, they allowed the thread to continue unchecked for quite some time. I, on the other hand, chickened out early, deleting a dozen or so offensive comments and closing comments on the thread when I felt it had gotten out of hand.
Other posts about controversial game-related topics have met with similar “success,” including Mat Tschirgi's review of the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG (recently in the news again for being banned from the Slamdance Indie Games competition) and a story I wrote on the inflammatory Islamist game Quest for Bush (a hack of the similarly inflammatory Quest for Saddam). In each of these cases, and in many others, our angle on the story has generally been that as a group of scholars and would-be academics, we think deep thoughts and ask hard questions about video games. The value of our content is made obvious by the many game-related controversies that have arisen around video games which were fueled ultimately by the general public's (or mainstream media's) misunderstanding of the actual issue at hand. What we have to offer as game scholars is a kind of simulation literacy that many people seem to lack, but it's not always easy convincing a general audience of the value of our perspective. Of course, I'm speaking of the ivory tower perception that many of us in academics have dealt with at times, but in the case of writing about video games, that problem seems to be compounded by the fact that we are writing on a subject that many feel themselves to already be expert in. There are vast resources on the Web with information on games, and some of the Web's largest and most influential communities (such as the message boards at GameFAQs.com or Newgrounds.com) are centered around gamer culture. Unfortunately, this community hasn't always been receptive to our content.
As our site administrator, I find myself obsessively tracking down links to our site, often trolling through page after page of a forum thread to find the one post that links to something on our site. What I find isn't always encouraging, such as this comment within a Slashdot discussion on the merits of Game Studies: “'Gameology' seems to be about on the same level as 'assology.'”[iii] Especially with regard to our longer form essays and reviews, I often find individuals posting links to our content with comments on the order of “can you believe people use words like these to talk about video games?” For example, a few Gameology contributors and I (Laurie Taylor, Ruffin Bailey, and Tanner Higgin) each published chapters in the recent collection from McFarland, The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (Ed. Nate Garrelts), and a blogger on TechDigest.tv mocked our work by listing the top 10 most ridiculous quotes from the essays in the book.[iv] Comments on the blog entry accuse us of creating “verbose stupidity” and of being elitist, pompous “wankers.” Obviously, the individuals who posted these comments are not among the audience we are trying to address in that collection, but it is, frankly, difficult not to be bothered by such statements about the value of one's hard work. And yet, while I don't think that academic writing should be adapted to satisfy an already prejudiced audience, it's equally disingenuous to simply write off such criticism as the work of the uninformed masses.
The double-edged sword of the Internet is such that the freedom by which creating and sharing content is made easy is also the freedom through which the wrong audience will find and criticize your work. The populist logic of so-called Web 2.0 applications like Digg.com also validates reactionary, sophomoric comments in a way that actually structures users' access to content. Clearly, this presents a problem for those seeking to address an academic audience online. I don't know what the answer to that problem is, but as I learn how to be an academic and prepare for a career in higher education, the problems I encounter negotiating audiences on the Web begin to look like microcosms of my more fundamental questions about what kind of value I create and how in the future I will be a provider for my family by creating that value. I'll stop short of saying that my academic writing can benefit from the techniques I employ to optimize a web page for search engine performance, but in a field where name recognition is crucial, it's hard not to think of keyword density and link placement even in writing for print publication.
Let me close by briefly posing a list of observations and lessons learned from my experience as a webmaster that may (or may not) have a bearing on academic writing:
1. Despite the populist doctrine of Web 2.0, not everyone really has a valid opinion worth replying to. The anonymity of the web may embolden conversation, but it also enables trolls. Don't feed the trolls.
2. Statistics can be addicting. Tools like Google Analytics were created primarily for administrators of revenue-based sites to track and fine tune their income streams. When ideas are your site's product, these tools can also help evaluate the “market performance” of those ideas within a given audience. They can also allow you to obsessively track what other people are saying about you.
3. An article with the word “sex” in the title will always draw more traffic. Example: I am also a webmaster for the online journal Imagetext: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. We've published some excellent essays over our 3 volumes, but thanks to a review of Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's erotic graphic novel, Lost Girls, the most popular search phrase to return Imagetext content is “pornographic stories.” Also, our most referrals consistently come from a NSFW Wikipedia article on the word “felch,” which links to our transcript of a talk by Robert Williams as an authoritative citation on the use of that term.
4. Someone will always take advantage of your good will. On Gameology, we've decided to maintain an open commenting policy, meaning that anyone can post anonymous comments on our stories without having to register an account. This leads to some great discussion, but it also leaves us open to “contributions” from automatic spam scripts. Despite various automatic lines of defense, about a dozen or so per day make it through to inform us about free ringtones, quality adjustable beds, and far less pleasant things.
5. If you build it, they will come … maybe. In both iterations of the site, I've spent time on features that simply were not as useful as I'd hoped. I've learned a good deal about usability in the process, but I've also arguably wasted a lot of my time. In more general terms, I've found that it's rarely adequate to simply trust the quality of your content to bring traffic; you must always be seeking out and inviting comments and commenting on other people's blogs so they remember to read yours. By analogy, the same principle is true for academic writing: if you're not reading what other people have written and responding to it, why should they read what you've written?
It is something of a cliche to state that the Web is changing how we as humans communicate with each other and share ideas, and the development and dissemination of academic thinking continues to respond and adapt to the new formats available. The issues of finding and addressing the right audience are as important as ever and are brought into sharp relief in the often hostile environment of online discourse. But whatever possibilities Web 2.0 holds, communities like Gameology and Flow may provide the best opportunities for developing critical thinking around media like video games and television. It is clear from my experience that we really do have something valuable to contribute by way of critically informed discussion, we just have to find the right audiences.
[i] I'm not sure how one accurately measures success in this context, but in those situations where game blogs are ranked, we're not really even top tier. On the site ReviewMe.com, for example, Gameology.org's review value is rated at $60 versus $250 for WaterCoolerGames.org (Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca).
[ii] Blosxom (pronounced “blossom”) does come with its own headaches, but it provided a reasonable solution that was quite easy for a novice to tinker with and adapt features to. Partly, I imagine, because it's a less popular blog solution than, say, WordPress, automatically submitted spam was hardly ever a problem. I still recommend it as a solution for smaller-scale
[iv] Tanner Higgin and I each have two quotes, and while I admit our statements are not exactly free of jargon, I think what we're saying is pretty clear. In fact, as a pair of quotes that are meant to represent my essay, the two that made the list do a pretty good job of presenting my core argument.
Please feel free to comment.