Marjorie Garber's Academic Instincts (Princeton 2001) is the kind of book that ought to be read in a warm and bustling university coffee shop furnished with comfy chairs, preferably during a single cold and overcast rainy (maybe snowy) afternoon. It is a niche book for a niche market: academics who are interested in a collection of anecdotes and thoughtful insights about their role in society and relative to each other. Those looking for something else, e.g. a wealth of rigorous data and empiricism, a tell-all about academic intrigue, a manifesto, or even a coherently defended thesis will probably be disappointed. (You'll see this disappointment on some of the Amazon reviews.) But if Garber's other published titles, like Dog Love and Sex and Real Estate, pique your interest, you might enjoy this book. It is partially a defense of such idiosyncratic investigations.
Which is why I mention it here. Garber is a professor of English at Harvard. The closest her book comes to having anything to do with virtual worlds is the few swipes it takes at "jargon" derived from cyberculture. And yet, in many ways, this book could serve as an important roadmap for Virtual World Studies, and perhaps even for this blog.
Garber's book is divided into three chapters. The first deals with amateurs and professionals, and is available here for free. The second chapter deals with the topic of "interdisciplinarity." The last is about jargon. All three, I think, have some bearing on Game Studies today.
The first chapster about amateurs and professionals is topical in that we are in the midst of an attempt to professionalize the study of games in various corners of the academy. "Ludology," says Wired and the Associated Press, is a new term of art for a new type of professional academic. With Games and Culture and Game Studies, we've got two academic journals devoted to the new medium of games. I don't want to risk running down a list of leading figures, but academic professionalism w/r/t the study of computer games is certainly percolating at ITU, Georgia, MIT and other places. We're seeing Ph.D. programs crop up that are more or less about the study of games and elsewhere we're seeing dissertations that dwell on aspects of virtual worlds. (NB: I'm talking about "game studies" and "virtual world studies" more or less interchangeably here--I realize I'm ignoring the different paths taken in the academic study of video games vs. virtual worlds.)
In general, this budding professionalization of game studies seems like great news to me. It probably ought to seem that way to anyone passionate about the medium of electronic games. And yet, reading Garber's discussion of amateurs and professionals has made me wonder, if only a bit, about the implications of a professional class of scholars who do virtual worlds and video games. Tim, a while back, described himself as "an outsider looking in" at "academic game criticism." Tim, however, professed that this wasn't a big deal for him:
My position on this whole question is a by-product of my own institutional situation. I have standard-issue academic respectability (probably fading fast the more I blog) as a historian of modern Africa. I don’t need to protect myself as a games researcher—but others do, and to do that, they need the apparatus of a discipline. If we’re not going to break down disciplines as a whole, then anyone who wants to move into a completely new line of inquiry needs parity with established researchers. So the argument for “normal” disciplinarity makes a certain kind of sense, and I oppose it only because I have the professional luxury to do so.
There were some great comments on that post, but mostly they were about the ludology/narratology debate, something that I'd rather not revisit. The thing that relates to Garber's thoughts is Tim's strategy of casting of himself as an underinvested academic outsider, to which Jesper Juul has a nice reply:
As for the question of having game studies as a separate discipline, it's only recently I've begun to understand that many people feel that a discipline is something that excludes other fields - I always thought it meant having a forum for the exchange of ideas!
Understanding what Juul's surprise entails is where the anecdotes of Garber pay off. In her chapter (again, you can read it here
for free), she takes us on a quick and merry tour of the amateur/professional divide. She finds it in
sports, in the academy, and elsewhere, introducing us to amateur professionals
who may have some significant credentials in another field, but who are
drawn to significant practice in an area where they lack credentials (Garber holds
out Miss Marple as an example). She also shows us the professional amateur,
such as the "outside the beltway" politician or the sponsored Olympian athelete, who glory and prosper due to their professed lack of professionalism. At times, Garber seems to confuse her two coined terms,
but I suppose that is the whole point. She takes the example of
sports, and the Olympics in particular, in order to demonstrate how the
line is blurry and reflects, historically, concerns over class and
status. Today, her conclusion seems to be, the label of amateur
and professional are often rhetorical strategies as much as coherent descriptions.
Applying this to Game Studies, it seems, we're at an interesting point of disciplinary formation. While Tim might feel like Garber's "amateur professional" in a way -- dabbling outside his depth in academic game studies -- the fact is that I think he does, at this moment, lend something to the field even by situating himself in some sense outside it. It recognizes, at the very least, that there is an "it" there that one can be outside. Perhaps more importantly, though, the lack of an established tradition of "academic games criticism" means that there is, at least currently, a n important dividing line in Game Studies that Garber misses: the line between practice and theory.
In Games Studies, this is an important thing to note: there is an R&D and craft study of game development (and virtual world development) that is about as large, if not larger, than the study that takes place in the Ivory tower. We've explored the difficulties created by two co-existing camps here and here
a bit. Yet generally, I think, there is a lot more attention paid across these lines than you find in other fields. In other words, I think we're lucky in a way, that, for the
moment, the lack of a mature discipline of criticism keeps the designers at
the table. People who study games don't just read the work of game
designers, they actually listen to and think about what they say about what they do. In fact, some of the theorists are the artists that are studied. Will this change? Does it have to?
Garber's second chapter is entitled "Discipline Envy" and is about the allure of crossing disciplinary lines. She spends a great deal of time on the line between the sciences and the humanities, arguing that the sciences usually stand above the humanities in any ranking of worth. This certainly has some bearing on the path of any formative discipline of Game Studies--some of us here do "hard" work and some do "soft." But more generally, Garber is interested in those who try to cross the lines between hard and soft, investigating the roots of the drive toward interdisciplinarity. The essay is neither a clear condemnation of the practice nor a clear endorsement--again Garber casts interdisciplinarity as a rhetorical trick. Ultimately she ends the esssay in praise of "genius," which she identifies as being that which is beyond the discipline--or perhaps at the root of all disciplines and that which disciplines envy most.
Garber's last chapter is about jargon, and is probably the weakest. Her conclusion, much in the same vein as the previous essays, is that there is no such thing as jargon (or, at least, that calling something "jargon" is primarily a rhetorical move). The ramble in getting there is a good one (this is her strength--the enjoyable ramble), but is noticeably looser than in the other essays. The best parts for me were probably her summaries of arguments made previously by Theodor Adorno in defense of academic jargon.
This last chapter too speaks to Game Studies. Reading the literature in what I'd call "academic game studies," and taking Alex Galloway's recent Gaming as one example, I am always struck by the urge toward coining neologisms as a first step in creating a practice of Game Studies. As Garber points out, there is a double-edged sword here: the language creates a profession at the same time it distances those not willing to grapple with being taught a foreign language. Like Garber, I'm largely sympathetic to the endeavor of forming a new critical language of Game Studies, though I'm also sympathetic to the claims that such a practice can become a means of excluding outsiders (a shibboleth) and a means of making potentially clear statements needlessly complicated.
Moving closer to home, our language must in some ways distinguish us here at Terra Nova. We have a reputation (a strange reputation for many of us) for being a "beardy" blog that studies what is understood to be a "non-beardy" subject. We don't disclaim the many hyperlinks pointing to us as "the academic blog" that talks about MMORPGs. In fact, I think we kind of like it. And of course, it is a true description. All the authors here (that are members of some corner of the academy) have found ways to talk about virtual worlds that fit more or less squarely within the discourse of our professional discipline. (Well, maybe Tim hasn't, but as he says, he doesn't care about this.)
But, in my opinion, the excitement of this blog and our conversations here has always been the excitement of the amateur. We've thrown various disciplines together in our masthead in a hodge-podge. And this is a good thing. It is where the authors here reach past what they know and are comfortable being "authoritative" about that we have conversations that get interesting. In a way, I think Scott Jennings was right to put us on notice. We call ourselves professionals, but we're enjoying learning here probably more than we're engaged in expert dialogue. We are getting away with something sneaky. In short, we're trespassing on a field of study that none of us really owns or has a right to, and perhaps doesn't even exist--but that all of us would like to see created.
One question that springs to mind: when the longed-for discipline of Virtual World Studies is created on the ground we are mapping out, who among us will be qualified to reside there and to join in the conversation?