The Shape of the Gordian Knot: Synthetic Worlds

I’m going to take a tour over the next month or so of some specific instances of the intractable dilemmas facing academics at the moment, challenges to which I see no ready or straightforward solution. All of these problems, as I see them, confound some of the conventional defenses of academic institutions, but also are poorly addressed or even aggravated by many of the conventional, especially political or partisan, critiques of the academy.

Scott McLemee has a nice column this week in which he talks about how blogging or online writing among academics may be creating new and unexpected communities among scholars, conversations that cut across or even ignore specialization and disciplinarity without any of the creaky, elaborate institutionally deliberate mechanisms sometimes used to encourage similarly collaborative efforts. The more formal the effort to encourage interdisciplinarity, the more that it is easily suborned to the institutional dynamics that it seeks to escape. Sooner or later, the pressure to formalize, standardize, and control such projects becomes irresistable.

The serendipity of communication and discussion between online writers not only casually, informally connects academics with different intellectual traditions and methodologies, but bridges gaps between academic and non-academic thinkers that otherwise can seem almost impossible to navigate otherwise. Try as a matter of deliberate policy to get academics and non-academics together, and you’ll get something about as spontaneous, relaxed and productive as a row of 13-year old boys at the high school dance trying to screw up their courage to ask someone to dance with them.

In contrast, there are all sorts of examples of academics and non-academics conversing busily, productively, creatively to be found at various weblogs, but the most powerful example I encounter in my working life isn’t so much at or through a single weblog as it is around an entire field of research.

Formal study of what the economist Edward Castronova has called “synthetic worlds”, what others have called virtual worlds or massively-multiplayer games, is something that I fell into largely by accident. I’ve been an interested consumer of online worlds (both game-oriented and otherwise) and some of their pre-online precursors, for my entire life. I felt comfortable identifying myself as more than a consumer, as an intellectual concerned with inquiry in this area, partly because I developed a secondary expertise in popular culture after arriving at Swarthmore and wrote about children’s television, but also partly because of a growing interest in networks, emergent systems, and complexity theory that came from other experiences.

I’ve been increasingly enthralled by both academics and non-academics working on this general topic not just because of the subject matter, but because on many occasions, I can see the outlines of a completely different sort of practice of intellectual life that is strongly distinguished from the kind of scholarly communities and relations that I see in the overall discipline of history or in the field of African studies. Work on synthetic worlds is often largely agnostic about disciplines, about the formalities of academic professionalism, about the hierarchies that often mar scholarly life. This is not to say that it is undisciplined or careless. The remarkable thing for me is that you can get ethnographers, economists, political scientists, legal scholars, literary critics, business experts, technologists and many others in a room with each other and have incredibly productive conversations where each contribution is shaped by a rigorous methodology, and yet have relatively little gatekeeping.

This is not to say that the field is free of really strong conflicts. I’ve written in the past about the conflict between what’s called “ludology” and “narratology”, which I think sort of translates to a rematch of Levi-Straussian structuralism with a poststructuralist hermeneutics, though there’s more involved than that. (Loosely speaking, the ludologists tend to think that games, including synthetic worlds, should be known in terms of their formal or structural properties; narratologists in terms of the communicative and expressive content and meanings embedded within those worlds.) People with different disciplines can talk past one another or get snotty about their own preferred methodologies. At a recent conference, a lot of us took the opportunity to aggressively bash a presentation that was premised on evolutionary psychology. The academics sometimes despair that the practicioners ignore them and the practicioners roll their eyes at the relative uselessness of what the academics have to say. Existing conflicts do not magically vanish, just because you’re working on synthetic worlds, games, online discourse, what have you. No kumbayas need apply.

However, the sense of community I get is still dramatically different. The transaction costs involved in having a new conversation, finding a new insight, adopting new methodological tools, getting involved in a productive collaboration are so much lower than in history or African studies. I’m involved now in a large and growing group of scholars and practicioners who are playing in one of the major existing online games together. That’s just plain fun, obviously, and not everything scholars do could be like that, much as I might like to walk into a department meeting in plate armor and with a sword. But I also feel we’ve had some serious, substantive discussions in between bashing virtual elves on the head, some of which have spun out into shared public spaces for thinking like Terra Nova. What makes those discussions productive is not just that they’re happening in a fun space: it is part of the intellectual architecture of interest in the topic.

Why I bring this up in the context of academia’s ongoing problems is that I feel a constant sense of melancholy about the likely unsustainability of this intellectual moment. Academic work on games, virtual worlds, cyberculture and the like is under constant, increasing pressure for standardization and institutionalization, and that pressure comes from all sides and is often coming from people with perfectly good, even laudable intentions.

On one hand, it’s coming from people who are perfectly right to be concerned about justifying scholarly attention to such topics with a wider public. That’s not just about trying to pick up legitimacy in the eyes of public officials who finance higher education, but about a wider cultural and social credibility. Edward Castronova’s new book Synthetic Worlds is a really great, thorough, intellectually rigorous overview of the topic and of evolving research concerns within it, but what kind of treatment does he get from the New York Times Book Review? They assign some pseudo-doyen of the literati ancien regime to trot out by-the-numbers snobbery about the brave new world of online popular culture, much as the high-culture tastemakers of a previous generation used to hold forth about the evils of television. The reviewer is the kind of person who read a newsmagazine article about The Sims five years ago and thinks that’s the alpha and omega of the story.

It’s hard to have to recapitulate a legitimating claim for yourself every time you tell people what you do, to explain soberly why comic books or synthetic worlds or television matter or are worth studying. So we try to institutionalize that explanation in our own universities and in the wider culture, and that involves standardization of all sorts.

Me, I think it’s enough to say that anything millions of people do is important, and anything that makes billions of dollars off the activities of those millions of people is doubly so. There are a great many other reasons to care about synthetic worlds, about their potential as mirrors of or experimental versions of human society, as vehicles for expression and art, and as a new form of sociality that has real-world economic and cultural impact. I’m glad to offer those reasons if asked, but I readily concede it would be nice to have those reasons precede me, be available as a form of widely distributed common sense.

Even more, however, the pressure for standardization comes from within academic life. I can afford to be dismissive of that pressure, insensate to it. I have tenure. Even more than having tenure, I even have a “legitimate” scholarly field that dominates my writing and teaching. Nothing in my own future career depends on my interest in synthetic-worlds, save my own personal satisfaction. That’s not true for some of those scholars who are eagerly pushing for the creation of “game studies” as a discipline, for specialized journals that publish work in “game studies”, for a body of canonical theory in “game studies”, and so on. Their futures may depend absolutely on their success in those efforts. It’s not true for scholars being trained in disciplines like literary criticism, anthropology, economics or legal studies. They can’t afford methodological and disciplinary eclecticism, or gaining credibility among the community of people interested in synthetic worlds at the cost of building reputation capital in their own disciplines.

I felt this incredible sense of despair the other night when one of the members of our growing group of online scholars playing together talked over the game’s chat channel about his dissertation. It’s an amazing dissertation: I’m really impressed with his discussions of it, of the kinds of research he’s doing, about the ways in which its implications thread together psychology, cultural criticism, aesthetics and sociology, and about the potential uses of the research both for understanding what virtual worlds are and what they might yet become, the abstract and practical senses of his work. But he worried, in the context of his graduate program of study, in a conventional humanities discipline, about his “lack of theory”, about the need to have a kind of authenticated body of canonically disciplinary theory mentioned prominently in what he was writing.

I despaired because I can’t imagine anything less necessary or meaningful to the kind of work he’s actually doing, to the value of his inquiry, than name-dropping a bunch of the usual crit-theory suspects. I despaired because there is no way in hell that I would tell him not to do that. If I were his advisor, I’d insist that he do it.

That’s the face of the Gordian knot, in this case. To be responsible to the futures of people committing to new projects, new ways of communicating and disseminating knowledge, new areas of study, we have to domesticate them, regulate them, restrict them to the forms and rituals of academic life. To do anything else is malpractice, a blithe kind of irresponsibility. Take your own risks, but don’t impose them on others. That’s not what a good teacher does. The only alternative is to create institutional programs that value such work on its own terms, and to do that means creating all the mechanisms of disciplinarity and standardization all over again. You can’t propose, in almost all colleges and universities, a Department of Cool Stuff, something equivalent to the animating spirit behind XeroxPARC or similar centers of private research and development. You’ve got to describe for others what constitutes “real” study of synthetic worlds (or any other novel topic), pin it down, restrict it. Which is a solution as bad as the ill it seeks to cure, most of the time.

There’s a lot of talk in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) about Franklin this week. That spirit of generative amateurism, exploratory practical knowledge, and so on. That’s the dream that still lies somewhere deep in the DNA of scholarly life and which fights its way to the surface now and again. I have no idea how to make it more than a brief gasp of freedom in between episodes of stricture, how to change the spirit and culture of inquiry in subtle but pervasive ways. There are few real villains arrayed against that shift, much as it would be convenient to think otherwise. Mostly it is responsible people behaving responsibly, or busy, productive people whose own arrangements work well enough for them, well enough that they don’t really see any need for sustained change.

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7 Responses to The Shape of the Gordian Knot: Synthetic Worlds

  1. Thomas Malaby says:

    Terrific post, Tim. In thinking about the inherent institutional conservatism of academia it’s easy to despair, although it’s possible to point to certain subjects of inquiry that have been at least quasi-legitimized in the recent past (film studies comes to mind), and which then forced their way into traditional departments precisely because of the undeniability of their impact/breadth.

    As you rightly point out, tenure is key here, because it allows more senior scholars to support more junior research (through launching journals, hosting conferences, peer reviewing, etc.). The observations with which you begin, about the affordances of online collaborations (guilds, blogs like Terra Nova) actually make me more optimistic that an area like game studies and the people that do it can succeed *without* formal disciplinary status.

    Of course, the downside of this is what you also note, it puts graduate students in the unenviable position of having to kowtow to a particular discipline’s sacred cows. At least this is an acute, rather than chronic position (at least ideally). Perhaps grad students’ difficulties will be somewhat ameliorated over time by the increase in legitimacy, senior presence in the field more broadly, and the increasing prospects for having outside reviewers who study games.

    In the end, it’s only a matter of time (or so I tell myself this week).

  2. bbenzon says:

    The academics sometimes despair that the practicioners ignore them and the practicioners roll their eyes at the relative uselessness of what the academics have to say.

    I feel you on this one Tim. Some years ago I was teaching in the Language, Literature, and Communication department at RPI and, one semester, taught the basic graduate course in communication theory. Most of our graduate students were there for an MA in tech writing, a very pragmatic bunch. I taught the course in terms of what theory was interesting, as theory. My students complained that it wasn’t relevant to their practical problems. That didn’t surprise me at all. As far as I could tell, there simply wasn’t any theory that would have been of much practical value to them. Writing good tech manuals is very different from designing a telephone system.

    As for your brilliant graduate student, that’s a conundrum as well. It’s clear to me that theory is built on a world of practical analyses. If you want a theory of online gaming, you need to construct a bunch of case studies, in whatever conceptual language is available and convenient. Given a bunch of such cases, you can then examine them and start formulating a theory.

  3. Douglas Thomas says:

    I was struck with a number of the same sentiments listening to some of (I think) the same conversation in guild chat. There is, undoubtedly, a conservatism to academia which operates not only in terms of scholarship, but also in the critical question of job placement. If you are studying “games” there are reletively few places that are going to look at you seriously in terms of a hire. I hope that is changing, but I get a sense that we still have a very long way to go before it is a topic of study that is accepted without justification. Tom Boellstorff (in Anthro at UC Irivne) mentioned he gets more grief from his colleagues for studying second life than he does for studying gay indonesian men.

    I am a latecomer (e.g. post-tenure) to the study of games and virtual/synthetic worlds as well and I am lucky to be in a department at an institution which thinks it might actually have merit as an area of study. But. . . .

    Game Studies (if such a thing exists or should exist) has the potential to be enormously threatening to a number of academic institutions. MMOGs don’t rely on instruction; they rely on experience. And as a result, I think they produce not only different knowledges, but different ways of knowing. I think the guild has been an awesome example of that. I have been thinking alot about what kinds of knowledges matter, how language develops, social normative conventions of guild speak, etc., etc. There are real, serious, social and cultural issues lurking about, as well as deeper metaphysical ones (I swear, I think we barely avoided a collision with existential phenomoneology the other day), aesthetic ones, and even practical ones.

    Our fight, I fear, is not about getting games studies taken seriously, but what we do when people finally figure out there is something to take seriously. My major concern is that the most interesting and revolutionary work gets squashed under the weight of media effects, game addiction, or MRI scans of kids playing GTA to see how their brains light up when the take a baseball bat to a cop.

    I guess I share your concern, but also see some very deep institutional issues that are going to need to be resolved if we are going to have good and interesting work not only see the light of day, but find a home in the academy.

  4. Lisa Galarneau says:

    As an interdisciplinary mutt whose career has spanned both commercial enterprise and academia, it is precisely this tendency towards pigeonholing that has me running back to industry, at least as far as future work prospects go. But it is also because I now find myself addicted to these myriad points of view and can’t tolerate the thought of resigning myself to one department of study… with each foray into an area of expertise inhabited by another game scholar or practitioner, I find a whole new universe of possible explanation or framing open up to me. In my view, game studies must be holistic and interdisciplinary because games themselves are the creative product of a range of talents that represent a vast array of experience. But that can’t be limited to academic disciplines either – it needs (and does already to some degree) to take into account the entire ecosystems around games and the cultures emerging from them: players, fansites, developers, publishers, pundits, parents, educators, guild leaders, etc. We need more venues for critical thought that welcome (heck, recruit from) all of these perspectives. But that’s part of a much bigger debate, isn’t it? What role does the academy play in our connected, meritocracy-based digital society? Does it relinquish a bit of its traditional content expertise in order to facilitate and maintain the quality of debate, from whatever corner it might arise? Does it attempt to make the complex accessible to encourage greater participation? Maybe our experience with game studies, especially the intuition and worldview that has guided its participants thus far, shows us hints of what is to come. But that might not help much in the meantime. 😉 Then again, there are lots of things that have to operate outside the system at the moment as we struggle to adapt our institutions to all the changes in the world. I guess it’s simply a matter of keeping the faith.

  5. Ralph says:

    My sense, for what it’s worth, Tim, is that you’re not talking about a new problem. In the late 1960s, Ray Browne organized The Popular Culture Association and launched The Journal of Popular Culture for academics who found the American Studies Association and its journal, American Quarterly, both too provincial and too devoted to “high culture.” In part, ASA headed off the rebellion by broadening its interests. One of the consequences of its pre-emptive move is that one finds American Studies programs in lots of institutions today, but very few, if any, Popular Studies programs. Members of both associations are found today, not only in American Studies programs, however, but scattered through many departments and fields.
    As for the matter of theory and research, isn’t the problem best handled by insisting that a student document her or his connection and engagement with prior discussions, but also insisting that that documentation be relegated to where it properly belongs: in footnotes, endnotes or appendices? In the new world we’ve entered, the citations might be to books and articles, but also to internet sites, blogs, livejournals and so on. Surely the exciting research to which you refer is stimulated by _some_ background discussions and I see no shackling of the author’s creativity in insisting that he or she leave on record a trail that tells us how, conceptually, the author got there.

  6. tim in tampa says:

    It’s an interesting perspective on this problem coming to it as a Ph.D student in communication finishing his last semester of coursework (hopefully). We enter doctoral programs only to suffer a tug-of-war between faculty who want desperately your contributions to their sub-genre. Thankfully, I’m in a program that’s very loose with these connections, but it’s still extremely unclear whether our eggs are to be placed into one or several baskets. I’m still dealing with those issues this semester, taking most of my classes over in the American Studies department. I’m looking forward to presenting a paper at PCA/ACA in April and really mixing with some folks from outside comm studies proper, where I’ve been since 1999. It’s also important because as I’ve somewhat realized this week, my dissertation research is going to be pretty reliant upon blogs, or, more specifically, bloggers. If you’re studying a cultural institution, the contributions of those who create and perpetuate its presence are what you’re supposed to be interrogating, right? In my case, it’s poker, and poker bloggers serve as a vital link between the privileged (professional poker players) and the public. I know your work well, Tim, if only because I discovered you a long time ago while googling my own name. I’m fortunate that my committee members haven’t asked that “why” question yet; they simply think poker is unquestionably a valuable locus of scholarship. *shrug*

  7. hestal says:

    Even though I have been called an idealist elsehwere on this blog, I made my pile as a pragamatist in large-scale computer systems for large commercial enterprises. I pioneered in the field of parallel processing. I connected thousands of unmanned microcomputers, called robots, with thousands of micros manned by company employees, and with other thousands of micros manned by customers, independent sales people, etc.

    The unmanned micros attended to the general business functions of the company: the main service, customer service, billing, accounting, commissions, regulatory interfaces, etc. This was done in real time and in coordination with all of the other human users. The robots constantly surveyed the environment and decided what to do. Minimal human intervention was needed. There was no operational down time for these old-fashioned, practical (because they were essential), functions. It worked well and produced huge volume processing capabilities which exceeded those offered by other computing platforms.

    Finally, my point: during this adventure it became clear to me that another level of shared processing involving the users and the employees was needed. The collaborative software available at the time (15 years ago) was clumsy and lacked any computing muscle. It was also poorly designed and unreliable. The idea of game-like interfaces was always on my mind, but beyond my available time and budget. So if what you are talking about, and I am really unsure what you are talking about, involves producing on-demand community collaboration to advance public interests such as city hall activities, legislative bills, scotus cases, election irregularities — all the societal governance hot spots, then you will get all the funding you need.

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