I will try to briefly summarise my impressions and thoughts after the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) 2013 conference in Chicago, which ended last Sunday.
I have not attended a SCMS conference since Philadelphia in 2006, so my first impression is that something has happened. The quality of the presentations I listened to was higher and the research questions seemed more relevant in relation to the contemporary media ecology. This may of course be a result of a more deliberate choice of panels to attend and some luck. Due to KLM’s aircraft problems my arrival was delayed one day…so I only attended about a dozen panels out of approximately 450! Since I was not presenting I could be more focused on other scholars’ presentation.
Another contributing factor may be my focus on game studies (as well as some of the few transmedia oriented papers I found). As new in the field I took the opportunity to get an overview how game studies looks like in a cinema studies, that is humanities, context. I do not know the rationales to rename The Society of Cinema Studies into The Society of Cinema and Media Studies I am most delighted that “Media” here is not what “Media” is for Social Science-oriented Media and Communication studies or Cultural Studies. With the exceptions for some digital humanities and audience research panels I encountered few traces of quantitative research or policy studies. On the contrary, I noticed a strong emphasis on aesthetical, technological, and cultural perspectives.
Among many fascinating and well-researched papers and well-composed panels, what struck me the most was the need for further development in historical and political analysis of games. Again, two fields fit for humanities media research.
The two-panel “Debugging the History of Game Terminology” (parts of what seems to be a most promising book project) gave many examples of longer historical perspectives as well as the importance of looking at other sources than the existing, often anecdotal, accounts of game history. My first reaction to the second panel was the need for something equivalent to the early cinema studies of the 1980s and 1990s in game history. We see some of this happening within platform studies, but, what was also the results of early cinema research was redefinitions of the objects of study, discovering unexpected uses of media technologies, and probably most importantly, unveiling surprising relations to other cultural, technological, economical, political etc. contexts. Since early cinema research was not only a remarkable archival enterprise, but often a theoretically advanced and creative field as well, it was great to encounter theorisations somewhere between the highly philosophical tendencies of media archaeology and the less theoretical traditions of computer science.
Given the long tradition within cinema studies to focus on questions of identity, political analyses come easy to hand even in studies of games. It was thus not surprising to find excellent analyses of representation of race, gender and class in games. But, as was frequently discussed, race, gender and class is not only a question of representation. It may even be, as Jennifer Malkowski remarked, that games has an advantage in the fact that if a character is made with too much prejudices no one will find it interesting to play. (That the marketing and discourses around games often becomes misogynist and racist is another thing; but of course even more important to analyse and counter). Here Edmond Chang‘s concept of technonormativity may be of use, in adopting queer and trans-/(and/or post-?) humanist theories, either for analyses of individual games or perhaps even for platform studies?
A key concept may be one that showed up en passant during the discussion following the “Gaming the Landscape” panel late Saturday afternoon: game engine politics. The importance of performing political analysis of game engines, or at least of the gaming consequences of game engines, had arisen already during the panel (together with Debugging…II) I regarded the most interesting, “Playing the Past, Playing the Future: Time in Contemporary Video Games with TreaAndrea Russworm, Edmond Chang, Jennifer Malkowski (also chair) and Alenda Y. Chang. It is, or should be, rather obvious that what the person playing the game can do and is prevented from doing could also be a political question. Perhaps even more political than the questions of representation, given the interactivity of video and computer games. Game engine politics thus involves and has to include everything from platform to gamer and back again.
Adding to this I was happy to hear references (by Peter Krapp) to Claus Pias‘ great German-language writings on games, as well as uses of Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical works in an analysis of transmedia productions (Marc Steinberg).
I will return both to methodologies of game history and game engine politics later on.