I don’t want to just stand here and read out my statement of research, not when I’ve spent three months working on it and am now sick of the sight of the thing. Nor do I want to stand here and deliver a conference-style presentation, because the thing about conference style presentations in game studies is…
Well. You’re either inside the whale, in which case as an early career researcher you’re probably there to listen and not talk because you’re surrounded by people who’ve played everything, read everything, and had this exact argument going on since 2004; or you’re outside, and you’re having to bring a lay audience up to speed by introducing them to the kind of game you’re talking about and the discourse around it and how it relates to their field… and I do enjoy doing that, but I’ve done it enough times over the last two and a half years to want a break.
So I thought that instead of talking about my research as research, I’d tell you a story. I’d try to explain where the project comes from and why I’m doing it and what the point of it all is. And here we are. I’m going to talk about death a lot, and I’m going to be flippant about it: content warning.
I’ve always been a morbid little sod. I can’t tell you why. I remember reading Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man at an impressionable age and going on about hourglasses and harvest metaphors for a month, but I was already pretty susceptible by that stage. The aesthetic of it all – the look and the feel of the text’s world, the cover, even the play with fonts within it – really pressed my buttons. (When I say “aesthetic”, by the way, I’m talking in a sort of Kantian sense that I took from Graeme Kirkpatrick’s book on aesthetic theory and video games. That’s going to be important later.)
Anyway: Reaper Man. It’s also a diamond of a book – it’s about maturity and care and justice and facing the end with the right kind of dignity and defiance, and it’s about cities and villages and what makes them live, and – anyway, it’s formative. Especially if you’re the kind of kid who has emergent suicidal tendencies and is comforted by the idea that you’ll be dead one day.
I do think it’s comforting. Death is the thing that’s guaranteed to happen to all of us, sooner or later. It’s a truth that can’t be deconstructed, or elided, or denied. And, speaking as the kind of empirical agnostic type who doesn’t like to make firm statements about whether or not anything happens afterwards, that puts life into a particular perspective as well. We’re all going to die. Existence is a series of momentary diversions on the way to the grave. This might well be all we get. Better make the most of it, and not make things worse for anyone else along the way.
That, essentially, is death positivity. I was death positive before I knew being death positive was a thing. What even is “being death positive?” The person to ask there is Caitlin Daughty, who founded the Order of the Good Death back in 2011, and wrote some lovely eye-opening books about the death professions, and runs a really good, really funny YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician. I can also recommend a couple of academic collections – Death, Dying and Mysticism is one, The Matter of Death is another, they’re both Palgrave Macmillan. And that’s death positivity. That’s one of the big, defining Things in my life.
The other one is gaming. I’ve been playing games all my life, and all that’s changed is that they’ve become more (and then less) complex ones as I grow older. I’m not just a computer game person – to be honest, I’m not even mainly a computer game person, I’ve never owned a console in my life and there’s a huge chunk of the medium I just missed out on because my cheap PCs weren’t up to the job. I’m a tabletop game person. I started out with choose-your-own-adventure books in the early Nineties, drifted into Warhammer and its ilk, drifted into roleplaying games from there: I’d say “like Dungeons and Dragons“, but I’ve barely played any Dungeons and Dragons. Except the computer game versions.
The point is, I took kind of a weird path into game studies, which only really broke through as a discipline in its own right when video games became enough of a mass medium to be worth looking into seriously. This was starting to happen when I was doing my BA in creative writing – the big entrenched debate between ludologists (people who read games as systems and mechanisms of rules and think that’s most important) and narratologists (people who read games as storytelling tools and cultural artefacts like films or novels and think that’s most important) was really kicking into high gear while I was learning about writing for games and writing for the Internet, and I made a mental note to keep an eye on that.
Then I got distracted by doing an MA in English and catching up on all the Marxist literary theory I’d managed to dodge on the way up, and presenting my first ever conference paper. It was about the semantics of ‘necromancy’ in early modern Catholicism and the ecumenically useful distinction from witchcraft – because of course it was. I did mention I was a bit obsessed, right?
The other big thing that was happening at the time was the turn to affect in the humanities – I remember going to a symposium just down the road at the University of Manchester, of which that was the title, and being intrigued and a bit peeved that we all had to learn neuroscience now because it meant we could point to something that was measurable with instruments and thus really real and so gave us all a reason to keep existing. And I meant to start a PhD the year after that. Really I did. But there was no funding and I needed to keep living indoors, so I became a teacher instead, and that was a mistake that took about seven years to finish happening and another two or three to come back from.
I was applying for PhDs, all through this time, like they were jobs – “ok you’ve got funding for ‘the long eighteenth century’, here’s something about magic in the eighteenth century, interested?” – and a lot of my friends were doing PhDs, so I had this second-hand contact with the academic world. I also spent a lot of that time moonlighting, working for an essay mill, but after about five or six years of doing that I had a bit of a moment. I realised I’d written hundreds of thousands of perfectly good academic words, on dozens of topics, including this paper I had right in front of me on Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and their running argument about terror and horror in the Gothic, and I didn’t get to keep any of them. And this Gothic paper was really quite good.
And so the next paper I wrote was a total passion project, a response to something I’d come across in my research – it was about Gothic co-ordinates in World of Warcraft, and it was a video essay, which is still up on YouTube and I’d really like if it could crack a hundred views one of these years. I took that to Sheffield’s Reimagining Gothic conference – to the creative showcase, because I didn’t think I was a Proper Academic at this point – and that’s where I met Stephen Curtis, who coined the wonderful, awful word “deathsetics” and used it to talk about games. Curtis is another of those people who uses “aesthetic” in the usual shorthand “what this media object looks and sounds like” sense and in a deeper “what it feels like to engage with this media object” sense, and he’s interested in how virtual death makes us feel and where that feeling comes from, culturally speaking.
The thing about games, see – the thing about roleplaying games and wargames, which I’ve spent something like twenty years playing – is that they’re all about death. Characters die a lot, and there’s this running conversation in wargames about how there needs to be an objective that isn’t just “kill all they dudes” because that results in a lot of boring games, and another in roleplaying games about how there needs to be a risk that your character will die or there’s nothing at stake, and yet another in videogames about how repeated character death is a sign that the game is difficult and challenging and thus a ‘proper’ game. And there’s pushback against those ideas – that you don’t need to kill everyone all the time or die every two minutes to have a ‘good’ or a ‘proper’ game. And there’s a whole history to these ideas, rooted in everything from the roots of the hobby in a strategic simulator for young members of the officer class to the earliest arcade games needing to regularly get more money out of you. And that’s… the two big things in my life, coming together.
I sat on that for another couple of years, because I’d come in with Gothic Studies and I was still finding my feet and treating academia as a sort of hobby, an excuse to go away for a few days and have a break from rural Wales and work-from-home content writing (both of which are quite soul-destroying if you’re stuck with them day in day out). But at the next Reimagining Gothic I went to, I met Dale Townshend from MMU, and – as I remember it – he asked if I was doing a PhD, and why not, and why I wasn’t doing it with him. And then a scholarship was announced, and at last I had a project that I actually wanted to do, that I’d be willing to do even if I didn’t get a stipend for the trouble. I didn’t, and I’m quite glad I didn’t because this isn’t actually a Gothic Studies project – it’s very gothy, it’s definitely Gothic-adjacent, but it’s not directly talking to or entirely within the Gothic as a genre – and I think what I’ve ended up doing is better for having stepped outside and taken a different perspective.
And here I am. That’s the story. Any questions?