Blog Post

First Person Scholar & the Future of the Humanities PhD

I’m going to put on my editor-in-chief hat and talk about First Person Scholar (FPS). Next week FPS, which publishes essays, commentaries, and book reviews on games and culture, will turn two years old. In that time we’ve accrued a wonderful readership and attracted some fascinating contributions. Our articles attract thousands of readers per month; they’ve been incorporated into course syllabi, referenced on game sites like Critical Distance and Gamasutra, and mentioned in publications like the Huffington Post and the New Yorker. What I’m going to do in this post is connect these modest successes with the overall mission of FPS and how that relates to humanities scholarship more broadly.

The objective of FPS is a fairly ambitious one. We seek to develop and expand the role of the game critic. Historically speaking, games have proceeded from industry-driven production to mainstream-media guided reception (i.e. industry-sponsored games magazines and websites). Within this dynamic the game critic—as an informed figure capable of bringing context to games–has been largely irrelevant.

At FPS we are advocating for a new dynamic, one in which the game critic demonstrates his or her relevancy through timely, rigorous, and accessible criticism that challenges all players to engage in critical play. As Mary Flanagan writes, “Critical play is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” (Critical Play 6). The articles we publish encourage players—be them developers, scholars, critics, or enthusiasts—to consider alternatives to popular interpretations of games and game play. Through this discourse we seek to establish and sustain a critical conversation amongst those producing and playing games, demonstrating in the process that the game critic is a figure capable of enriching and challenging our understanding of games and what they are capable of.

More specifically, we hope that through the publication of accessible games criticism we can make the case for a greater degree of interaction and even collaboration between game scholars and those creating and conversing about games. As it currently stands, there is a gap between these groups; bridging that gap would benefit all parties.

This is especially true for humanities scholars involved in game studies. In a post on Policy Options titled “The future of the humanities PhD,” Paul Yachnin and Leigh Yetter suggest that “It’s time to reconsider the way we steer doctoral students in the humanities exclusively towards careers in the academy and to cultivate roles for them in the world outside academia.”

The authors, who consulted a number of other humanities scholars in crafting the article, examine the discouraging numbers associated with humanities PhDs in terms of enrollment (it’s increasing) and the number of jobs in academia (they’re decreasing). Yachnin and Yetter conclude that, “It is not merely possible to make room for humanities PhDs in the modern world, it is essential that there be room for them and that people with humanities training at the highest level be integrated into the political fabric of the country.” Insofar as it intersects with the humanities, the same can be said for game studies as well.

The challenge, then, is how do we “make room” for game scholars? The first step is to more clearly communicate what game scholars offer to those inside and outside the humanities, including the other academic disciplines, but also governments, NGOs, health care professional, game developers, journalists, and the public at large.

On this point, Yachnin and Yetter succinctly summarize what humanities grads, in general, provide: “The kinds of knowledge born of the humanities can contribute to clearer, more historically informed and more ethical understanding of problems that face modern society. The humanities foster understanding across lines of national, ethnic, racial and gender difference, which is an urgent requirement in an increasingly global world.”

Looking specifically at mainstream games, these offerings could be immensely beneficial to an industry that has often struggled to produce historically-informed, ethically nuanced material. For instance, the history of videogames includes divisive to outright offensive representations of gender, ethnicity, race, violence, and sexual orientation. And so, to flip the premise here, it’s worth considering that game studies might be essential to the maturation of game development.

Bringing this all back to First Person Scholar, I’d like to highlight one last passage from Yachnin and Yetter. They write that,

“It is important that students’ work become more public and more oriented toward the world outside academia. Publicity confers a measure of relevance and permanence on the work students do. Their most accomplished research should be able to move beyond the seminar room and the library. The work should, in principle, join with other work in ongoing conversations about matters of public concern.”

In many respects, this has been the outcome of FPS: to make public and accessible the games scholarship of grad students and professors in such a way that it communicates the “relevance and permanence” of game studies to other game scholars and other disciplines (via integration in course syllabi, for example), to developers (for instance, those who read Gamasutra), and the general public (such as the readership of the Huffington Post and the New Yorker).

We’ve come pretty far in two years but we have a long ways to go yet. If you’re interested in being part of that—as a reader, a contributor or something more—check out the site and feel free to drop me a line: steve.wilcox[at]firstpersonscholar.com.

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