On Centering Excellence in Game Culture Studies, a Goodbye Letter

Written by Sabine Harrer. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

I’m writing this as a goodbye letter to the Tampere Game Lab, my academic home for the past 18 months. I want to take this moment to reflect on my work at the CoE (See Oh Ee), as we lovingly call it, during a time of immense global struggles – an environmental crisis, world-wide right wing political radicalisation, a pandemic, the 2020 protests, a wave of in the games industry etc. This context is important because, despite our best efforts to make the study of games playful and cutting-edge, there still is the looming question of relevance towering over game studies in 2020. How, given the current global crises, can we justify putting attention and resources into studying something abstract like ‘games culture’? How does a study of games culture have to work and position itself to dismantle rather than intensify problems in games culture? Or in other words, how can game culture studies be excellent?

What if ‘excellence in game culture studies’ was the commitment to leaving academic apathy behind and actively dismantling oppressive structures in game culture?

When I started at the CoE, I was aware of some of the problematic sides of gaming in practice and theory. I had experienced the casual toxicity of male-dominated game collectives, game jams, and faculty spaces. I had seen some of my closest friends and collaborators be crushed and diminished by sexism, racism, trans- and homophobia. As a white European, I only experienced a fraction of the abuse that ‘game culture’ keeps committing on the majority of people enjoying and making games. So when I was invited to work at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies, I deliberately interpreted this name as a call for action: To me, the excellent study of game culture was centering on dismantling structural problems in games culture. I was aware that this was a naive subversion of the original meaning imposed by neoliberal institutional culture: Officially, excellence is an output metric, a euphemism for quantifiable performance. The pressure to adopt this mindset is enormous, so it requires leadership to actively encourage, see, and reward different kinds of excellence. I was lucky to have experienced such leadership at the CoE, thanks to my supervisors and colleagues whose support has been instrumental in building the kind of social justice-centred work and alliances which I have been able to build between January 2019 until August 2020.

In retrospective, I see my contribution to the CoE roughly in terms of three themes which are about to grow stronger in my new capacity as a Senior Lecturer at the Gotland Game Design Department (Uppsala University). Rather than achievements of excellence, I prefer to look at them as open-ended, experimental attempts at excellence in the sense of doing more good than harm when studying a structurally oppressive phenomenon like game culture. Or to say it in my supervisor Olli Sotamaa’s words, which I believe are more uplifting, “you don’t need to be excellent to work at the Centre of Excellence, you just need to be good enough”.

First, I have developed work on queerness, sexuality, pleasure, and intimacy in game design, featuring collaborations with the Copenhagen Game Collective, Katta Spiel, Cale Passmore, Ida Toft, and Doris Rusch. This line of work challenges normative game development through speculative, playful design lenses. The aspiration in these projects has been to understand how designing games from standpoints of lived experience can foster practices of resilience, resistance, and intersectional solidarity. Where technology caters to a hegemonic norm, there is the need to queer and subvert it to allow everyone to play. 

The second pillar is in the field of what Annakaisa Kultima has called jamology, the study of game jams, hackathons and game creation events. Despite promoting ‘diversity’, such events are often streamlined to a narrow audience of self-perceived game makers, but their methods of collaborative making and sharing can be adapted for purposes which challenge and transform normative power. I have seen this tactic in practice as a collaborator of the Indigenous-led Sami Game Jam organised by Outi Laiti and Annakaisa Kultima, which led to an inspiring academic dialog I was invited to join. Outi and Annakaisa have redefined for me what excellence in game culture might mean, and how, in Finland, it is interweaved with Sámi Indigenous practices of playful self-determination. 

© Annakaisa Kultima, Sami Game Jam 2018 participants

Thirdly, I used my time at the CoE to educate myself about my own privileges and complicity in game culture and build critical alliances with anti-racist activists. Especially when it comes to whiteness and its oppressive impact, game culture is a space which structurally dismisses Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour’s voices on all levels of cultural production, teaching, and academic engagement. To challenge my own complicity in white institutional silence around racism in games, I started collaborations with researcher, media activist Leonardo Custódio and co-founder of the Anti-Racist Media Alliance (ARMA), culminating in a book project. Over the past decades, critical game studies has produced an impressive body of work demonstrating how game culture is connected to colonial history, the exploitation of the Global South, color-blind racism, and how it currently operates to define non-white gamers as deviant. My impression is that little of this work is actively engaged with in European research spaces where structural whiteness is thriving almost unchecked. This is one of the reasons I have collected 10 pieces of anti-racist game studies scholarship in a series of Twitter threads which was supposed to highlight their relevance in an accessible way. The need to problematise and dismantle whiteness in game culture studies, especially in Europe, is also the reason for initiating the ‘surviving whiteness in games’ DiGRA 2020 panel with Kishonna Gray, Rilla Khaled, Florence Chee, Outi Laiti, Mahli-Ann Butt, Amani Naseem, Cale Passmore, and Kayode Shonibare-Lewis. The panel sadly fell victim to the conference cancellation but established a departure point for future action. 

As my time at the CoE has ended, I’m still left with the question what this all means for excellence in an aspirational sense. Who are we trying to be excellent towards? Who are we imagining at the centre and at the margins of ‘excellence’? For social justice work to be sustainable it cannot rely on the most marginalised individuals, but requires infrastructural investment. As Bonnie Ruberg put it in their 2019 GDC talk on battling toxicity in the classroom, hire more than one ‘diverse’ professional. And don’t ask them for extra labor

If my many collaborations at the CoE and beyond have taught me anything, it is not the lack of highly qualified Indigenous, PoC, disabled and genderqueer games scholars which makes us invisible, but an institutionally sustained resistance towards seeing us as anything but at the margin of excellence. For this to change, leadership must build infrastructures which allow BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled researchers to move from the margins to the centre of excellence and feel included. For this to happen, a culture change is necessary, and during my time at the CoE I have gained the impression that such a change is actively desired. Additionally, collaborating with non-white, non-straight and non-male game scholars in Finland and beyond has convinced me that there is a wealth of experience and knowledge which can be tapped by the CoE to build the kind of diverse excellence it desires. 

A couple of takeaways from Bonnie (Bo) Ruberg’s GDC 2019 talk When Toxic Gamer Culture Enters the Classroom (perspective mine).

Finally, I increasingly get the impression that at its core, working towards excellence is almost the same as working through discomfort. Paradoxically, the CoE has provided me with a comfortable nest from which to weather necessarily uncomfortable moments. Such moments include the realisation that as a white, able-bodied person who passes as cis, I regularly ignore voices of creators, scholars, and players more marginalised than me, not out of active malice, but the opposite, apathy, and the internalised illusion that race, ability, gender etc. are ‘special interest topics’ which don’t affect my work as long as I don’t notice or especially highlight them. They do.

I have wondered, at times, how much I’m myself at the receiving end of institutional apathy. Despite my relative safety at the CoE, I have at times experienced the fear of coming across as ‘too political’, ‘too radical’, or ‘too niche’, and as a result, not worth engaging with. Whether this fear is justified or not, it’s a result of doing social justice work in isolation, and as long as it does not interfere with the comfortable habits of others. I do understand the desire for comfort, and have found myself participate in comfortable habits of ignorance as well (the classic is citing a powerful white cis male game scholar out of fear of misunderstanding the queer Black woman who essentially said the same thing a decade earlier). Paradoxically, the freedom of a cushioned, supportive environment at the CoE has made me see these oppressive elements, including racist, sexist dynamics in my academic habits, and has helped me work on hacks to actively change it.

I want to close by sharing the single most useful hack I have developed as a result of working through the discomfort of internalised misogyny and racism in my day to day research. I call it White Men Spotting (WMS), and it is a hack I use to hold myself accountable on citing diversely. In a demographically uneven field like game studies, white cis men are most likely to be cited and thus build a career, gain celebrity status and become objectively relevant. My brain has participated in this sexist selection by reliably identifying ‘rigour’ and ‘scientific quality’ as simultaneously neutral and linked to white male authors. This has changed once I started using WMS by highlighting white male authors in my text and agreeing on an acceptable maximum quota before I start (I recommend 50%). Interestingly, what seemed like a minor tweak has tremendously expanded my sources, and my ability to see and acknowledge ‘absent’ voices in game culture. The strength of WMS is that it imposes a callous, objective tool on something as subjective as ‘relevant literature’. It reduces WM to a simple statistical factor, so shifting relevance isn’t about gender or race, it’s about achieving balance in an unbalanced system. WMS is scalable to different intersections (ability, age, class) and can be easily gamified by lowering the WM factor as much as desired. It can also easily be combined with Wendy Belcher and Kishonna Gray’s : “To pass the a journal article must not only cite the scholarship of at least two women and two non-white authors but also must mention it meaningfully in the body of the text.” 

#CiteHerWork, ,

To state the obvious: citation matters! Citations are political in that they can build or sideline a scholar’s entire career. The and WMS are small ways in which we can make this practice more equitable and fun. It’s a first step to become more aware of one’s position in game culture studies, and to actively amplify those voices and careers a truly excellent game culture studies is going to need.

Sabine Harrer is a senior lecturer at the Game Design Department Gotland, Uppsala University (SE). Previously, they have worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies, University of Tampere (FI). Their research focuses on cultural videogames criticism, HCI and intersectionality, and creation-based knowledge making. Author of the book Games and Bereavement (transcript 2018), Sabine has taught widely on game production and design, cultural media studies and English studies at the University of Vienna, IT University Copenhagen, and BTK Berlin. Sabine is a member of the Copenhagen Game Collective, with whom they create experimental games and social installation experiences. Their game-related projects can be played at enibolas.itch.io.