Dr. T. L. Taylor is Professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and a member of the HASTAC Board of Advisors. A sociologist, Dr. Taylor’s research work focuses on Internet and Video Game Studies, exploring how those digital media may inform of as well as foster changes in today’s society. I felt extremely lucky to have the chance to have an insightful conversation with Dr. Taylor on Skype, and to learn more about her expertise and interests in the meaning of social practices in Internet and games as cultural spaces.
How did you get into Internet and Game Studies?
That goes back to when I was doing my dissertation in the 1990s. I didn’t grow up with a computer or video games at home but when I moved to grad school, I got very involved and fascinated by the early internet. My dissertation was on very early graphical and text-based virtual worlds. I hadn’t at all studied or encountered anything like that earlier but it was a very exciting time with the growth of digital culture and internet technology. I was really fascinated by connecting in real time with people all across the world. I spent a lot of time in the ‘90s in the thick of that sort of emerging technology space. I spent my time and my dissertation focusing on that branch of Internet Studies. My work in Game Studies came not because I was a hardcore gamer, or a gamer in any sense, but because I was tired of my dissertation [laugh]. In 1999 I had heard people I had been working with over the years in virtual worlds talking about this game called Everquest. I just started playing for fun, as a distraction – you get to that point when you’re doing your PhD and you’re just tired of it – so I wanted a distraction! I started playing that game and very quickly realized there was so much interesting stuff happening in it. It was bringing together themes that I was interested in, like VR or network communications, but in a gaming environment, which was new for me. And that multiplayer aspect really captivated me. My dissertation mentions of Everquest a bit but it was after that project that I decided there was a lot to explore in these Massively Multiplayer Online Spaces and really focused on them. I’ve been doing research on gaming since.
In your post “In through the back door” you give a poignant testimony about your own path, and you mention the benefits of community college, which we usually don’t hear too much about in academia. Did it influence your interest in online educational resources in any way?
I actually feel that that piece is, as much as anything, about the value of face-to-face connections, and of everyday material connections we make through with institutions. So one of the things I recount in that piece is how I wouldn’t have even known that UC Berkeley had been an option to apply to if I hadn’t run into my professor in the hallway and had a kind of stumbling conversation through it. Online education can be a useful option but there is also tremendous value in places like community college. Folks who may be coming from a first generation-family background like myself can find real benefits in everyday embodied engagement with faculty and other students. That may be kind of surprising to hear for someone like myself, who’s spent most of her time studying and documenting the value in online and network space, but I’m actually pretty grateful that I had a community college to go to, and to meet faculty and other students at that time. That was a really important experience for me.
How do you see the role of the HASTAC community in the world of education, and what would be one professional advice for a new HASTAC scholar?
I think this is where the power of connecting outside of your local community online is one of the most fantastic things about the internet. Even though being at that community college was really important, I also know that in my graduate life a lot of cutting edge research I was finding and conversations I was having with folks were not coming from my local communities. When I first started studying Internet culture in the ‘90s there was one other professor in my school in another department who was interested in that stuff and no one else. No one in my department knew what I was doing [laugh], though they were supportive. I had to find a professor at another school who really knew the domain well (Sherry Turkle at MIT, who ended up being one of my advisors) and find a community online. So I think organizations like HASTAC are really important and powerful in helping people connect up and fostering networks beyond their most immediate local community. Whether that’s facilitating conferences that bring everybody together face-to-face, or having online spaces for conversation, bringing together scholars who might not otherwise be accessible is a tremendous value that an organization like HASTAC can provide.
In your research on video games, what is the most unexpected things you discovered (about players, games themselves, etc…)?
There have been different important findings for me along the way. One of the first foundational things actually started in my early internet research on virtual worlds, and was a theme that’s continued in my games research, and it is that people engage with and take up socio-technical objects and make something more of them, make something more of their experiences with them, then is often intended or prescribed by the designer. That means that people are usually working across a range of sites and platforms to make their experience what they want it to be. They’re pushing systems to sometimes do more than designers not only expected, but perhaps wanted. I often think of it as an assemblage: of things people pull together to make their online experience, whether that’s a play experience or a social experience. What they want is much richer and more complex than, when I first began internet research, I would have imagined. I would say the second big foundational thing that continues to run through all of my projects is that while it is important to focus on users, or players, and it is likewise important to focus on platforms or games as artifacts and structures around them. This is the sociologist-side of me speaking. There are a range of institutions, organizations, and policies, and the law at work with these spaces. There are all of these other nodes that are critical to understanding either gaming or life online and, for me at least, the richest way to understand it is to not just tell the story of the player and the game but also all of those other institutions, actors and processes that are along the chain. That is as much a disciplinary disposition as anything, but that’s a theme that I think I came to see more clearly, especially now as so many of these platforms have also become mainstream culture . So exploring that whole chain is something I tend to think a lot about.
The MIT Game Lab sounds fascinating. Could you describe its mission and perhaps give a couple examples of games, pedagogical resources, or outside-academia applications the Lab has worked on?
The Game Lab - in the Comparative Media Studies and Writing department - is really one of the most important hubs for interest in researching and teaching games at MIT. Faculty and staff in the lab are teaching courses in game studies, game culture, game design, and development. At MIT we have an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) that gets our students involved in the research we do. For example, we have a researcher, Dr. Mikael Jakobsson, who is doing an extensive study on colonialism and boardgames and has had UROP students help with that. I have two graduate students affiliated with the lab that currently work with me on the AnyKey.org initiative. The Lab also does many design projects with organizations that come to it that need help. We also collaborate with companies. For example we had a collaboration with Tencent, who owns League of Legends. They brought over students to engage in a friendly exhibition match with our students and then we had a working session and public panel about esports. So the Game Lab is a very lively hub for teaching and games research here at MIT. They do a lot of tremendous work.
How do you foresee your field of research, gaming, and education, evolve in the future?
I often say I’m a sociologist, not a futurologist [laugh] so I rarely predict the future. As somebody who thinks a lot about culture and both contingencies and indeterminacies I don’t know where things are going. One thing I will venture to say however is it’s pretty clear the field of Game Studies continues to grow and also to be fruitfully pushed. We have a lot of fantastic work now from folks like Adrienne Shaw and Bonnie Ruberg who are trying to bring conversations from, for example, Queer Studies to the table. I think there are folks who are interested in platforms and critical analysis of systems and that is also fruitfully extending Game Studies. I’ve been fortunate to see Game Studies pretty much from its start till now and it’s been an exciting time. When I joined the IT University of Copenhagen in 2003 we launched a center for computer Game Studies and that was really one of the first. And at the time, the field sat offside most of the major disciplines. It was a very oddball niche space generally. I think one of the things that has happened over the last decade plus is traditional disciplines have picked up on the importance of gaming and see it as a site of legitimate inquiry. We don’t see it offside traditional disciplines anymore, so I think that is probably going to continue. And I think hopefully some of these fruitful critical interventions that have happened outside of Game Studies will come into the field and continue to push it in good ways.
Finally, what were the latest game(s) you were excited about and why?
I’m currently spending a lot of time playing Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, a mobile game. I’m a huge fan of the Animal Crossing series! It’s a very strange game, it can be very grind-y and task-driven, but it has also been historically a very lovely world space. The Pocket Camp version has got all the same look as Animal Crossing and it’s even more grind-y in some ways, but I love the characters in that game so I’ve been spending a lot of time playing that. I think all of us fans of the series are waiting for its next iteration to come out of the Switch so we are using the mobile one to bide our time! I’ve also played a lot of Stardew Valley over the last year, which is also another kind of tending game, where you have a farm and I love that. My tastes in games tend to run towards often the slow, non-timed, and often grind-y task driven. I like having my little things I’m working on with the world.