The mega interview journey, part 5: Michael
Of the seven people I interviewed, Michael Abbott is the only one who is not a game journalist; he is, however, accurately classified as a games writer. His persona matches his writing: confident, mild, wise, and academic. Still, the two words that keep coming to my mind are "gentle" and "enthusiastic." While the Brainy Gamer is an experiment, he is not far removed from his subject material. It isn't just in text that he gets really excited about games and even more excited that people are talking about them with maturity in an open forum.
Brainy Gamer started in August 2007, a blog dedicated to "thoughtful conversation about video games". Before one year had passed, it had received over 270,000 unique visits, 1,000 RSS subscribers, and an average of 15-20 comments per post. (For those who dig Google Page Rank: 5, purely by word of mouth and text.)
I asked about why he had started it and what it was for. As many know, he is a professor at Wabash College. Brainy Gamer was initially simply a work project, but Brainy Gamer, a living and breathing creature, took on a different life. Even Abbott's opinions have been shaped by the discussion taking place, and now he has new and informed ideas about a myriad of topics, including gaming communities, their formation and evolution, and the place of games in academia.
"I took a sabbatical from teaching; this is my project. It's my attempt to bridge the gap from game community to a new form of game scholarship. Initially, my real purpose was to demonstrate at Wabash that you can be serious about games. The blog started, and it became clear to me that this is something that could be integrated into the liberal arts. It was a lightbulb moment."
"It all started as conversation, but now part of my mission with Brainy Gamer is to convince people that games can and should be a part of a curriculum. It's difficult: we have people who are saying 'just let me play games and have fun,' but there are also those who have never played games and who are saying 'how can we let this in the academy'? I think both groups are resistant, but for totally different reasons."
"What would it take to grow these kinds of communities?" I asked.
He responded, "One thing I'd like to see is for developers to join these conversations with us. Steve Gaynor is one good example, and his blog is terrific. Manveer Heir at Design Rampage is another developer who blogs about design and communicates with the wider community. Developers could add a dimension we often don't see."
"Part of what [game] criticism is doing is that there's a kind of teaching mission. We're presuming we have something interesting to say to help people understand and appreciate games better. Potentially that appreciation will enable the group to grow."
He is still optimistic, though. He added, "I think it's a bigger space than we may think. The community developed, I think, largely due to college and grad students. There are a surprisingly large number of people who write thoughtful essays and comments on my blog. Enough people are interested to make it a critical mass."
We also spoke on the difficulties of it being a stable field. I remembered out loud how many professors become friends simply because of common fields and specializations; he told me a lot about the status of games in academia. He was comfortable with the term game criticism, but had some reservations. Like the rest of us, he is nervous.
"Narrative games are barely past the infant stage, and critical commentary and analysis about them are even less developed," he warned. "Everyone is still trying to figure out who everyone else is, and in this process communities form themselves. We are on the ground floor of this effort to try to figure out how to talk intelligently about video games - how to analyze them and develop a critical language to discuss them. We're not like other disciplines (I'm not even sure I would call us a discipline yet), because we're all figuring this out together; we don't even have the terms yet."
I had mentioned the other people I was planning to interview. Intellectual discussion has a social growth that's almost academic. "A very typical example: How did I meet Mirch Krpata? Well, someone linked me to something, which linked to him somewhere. I contacted him, and he kindly responded. That's pretty much how it works."
"Well, and it's interesting," I said. "Even, or especially outside of academia people are on unsure footing; Leigh's the only one who dared to suggest a term. For the most part, people seem to be quiet about it."
He told me, "Part of our trepidation about what to call it is that there is already a field called game studies, and some of us aren't comfortable with where that's going or don't feel we quite fit in there. Game studies is taking a fairly traditional academic approach to research and scholarship, and as a professor who has done my share of papers and conferences, I'm trying to go another way. I want to write about games at the place where they are being discussed most vigorously, online and amongst gamers. I greatly respect what game studies is doing - and I've benefited from this work - but I've reached the point in my career where I'm not terribly interested in traditional academic research anymore."
Despite that, he worries about how games will function in academic curriculua. He explained why some academics aren't comfortable with games: "Schools are nervous about games becoming academic without rigor or structured pedagogy. I'm concerned about it too, frankly. I don't want it to be just discussions and nothing else."
In short, he reminded me of what Kieron had said earlier: when we discuss games, the discussion is public and usually on the Internet, and opposition can easily form there. "Between having both the common gamer and academics strongly disapproving of the way you and the rest of us talk, it sounds like you have quite the fight on your hands," I said.
"It's not a fight, it's making a case. What is the place of conversation about video games in the liberal arts? Is it possible to teach the Odyssey and the Metal Gear series in the same class? Can you leverage students' interest in games to get them to think critically, write persuasively, and discuss intelligently, all of which are goals of a liberal arts education? I obviously think the answer is yes."
Michael had a lot to say. But in briefest form, this is the most important thing I learned: the question we should be focusing on isn't if or when, it's how.