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How academia is holding back video game criticism

While the video game industry often seeks to prove its legitimacy in the artistic, academic, political, legal, socioeconomic, and psychoanalytical arenas, academia is ill-fitted as an avenue of actually this.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

December 26, 2012

8 Min Read

Most graduate school programs offer limited enrollment and competition is extremely tight, especially for smaller impacted programs in media studies and game studies. For liberal arts undergrads, speaking at academic conferences and getting published in prestigious academic journals is a major boost, much like an internship at a major developer would help a burgeoning computer science major. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that success with academic conferences and journals is almost a requirement to being accepted into a big time grad program.

Unfortunately, while writing papers and speeches for academic journals and conferences may serve the individual student, it does far less for game studies as a whole and most academics would be better off publishing those papers/articles on major gaming sites. This is due in large part to how closed off the academic world can be and how shockingly different it is from the video game industry and open-access publishing. Odd as it may sound, the mechanism by which academic conferences and academic journals function is prohibitive to the sharing of knowledge and information that the new generation, especially gamers, are accustomed to where all information is readily accessible for free on the internet. It's oftentimes very difficult for academics to share most of those critical essays with the world in a timely and relevant manner.

Today the video industry thrives on a fast and oftentimes instant flow of information and media. Most video game print magazines are long dead and the internet is now the go-to source for gaming news, reviews, info, and criticism. The academic world, on the other hand, is still lock-step in tow with the traditional and insular method of conferences and journals for sharing information. Academic conferences cost a fair amount of money to attend and while they boost the academic acclaim of the individuals in attendance, the actual content of the conferences is often buried and locked away for a considerable amount of time. This is mostly due to the closed-access publishing cycle of academic journals and conferences. 

Academics who speak at a conference and hope to be published at that university's respective journal often have to endure lengthy publishing and exclusivity cycles before their ideas see the light of day.  While some academic and university journals are published on a monthly basis, many are published yearly and often encapsulate a number of essays delivered at that respective university's yearly conference. Anyone speaking and delivering a paper at a conference can expect to have to wait well over a year under embargo before they can finally share their paper freely and even then they might have to pay a licensing fee to do so. But even when a journal asks for only one month of exclusivity at the time of publishing, it can lead to an essay being held from the general public and from the whims of the original author for over a year until the journal is finally put to print.

In the video game industry where business, design, and technology innovations emerge and adapt very quickly, waiting a year or more to see ideas enter the public lexicon is gambling on possible irrelevance. Scholars will want to contribute and shape the dialogue on important issues in the industry when they're hot topics at the height of debate. They can ill afford to wait months and risk their ideas and facts being outdated at the time of print.

Conferences also expect to retain exclusive ownership of the papers and speeches delivered on-site.  Printed conference summaries are occasionally posted online and when they are, they rarely contain links to full papers. Most academic conferences don't allow guests to audio or video record panels and individual presentations. This is far removed from pop-culture and tech oriented conferences that are often live blogged or video recorded allowing a greater sense of connection with the public at large. 

Academic conferences are often touted as necessary for intellectuals to share research, but they can be so insular and self-serving to the point that they seem to exist solely to promote the established archetype of requiring academic professionals to continually be published in order to further their career. Those who support this traditional methodology claim that most of the general public is incapable of understanding the complexity of most critical essays written and delivered for conferences and journals, but this does a disservice to the public and shows the core problem of closed-access publishing. 

It's one of the reasons many academics in the field of game studies are often better off passing on academic conferences and looking at open-access alternatives at credible video game websites where they could freely link their ideas to students, family, and other professionals. It's far better than having great ideas in the field of game studies and game criticism tucked away where hardly anyone will see them.

Academic journals rarely upload their contents online in PDF form and oftentimes the only way to read a critical essay written for an academic journal is to purchase the journal itself. Anyone looking to access an essay published in an academic journal will often have to pay upwards of $100 for the entire hardcover journal. At best they may have the option to purchase a Kindle version or paperback for $30. These inflated prices are commonplace with most academic journals and here's hardly ever an option to purchase individual essays. Even when there is, there's almost always some academic society membership fee, or a pay-per-download fee, or a full access fee. 

College students admittedly get a break as university libraries often engage in shared loan systems where students can request academic journals from other schools, but this only applies to active university students and requesting libraries often absorb this cost. While many universities and professors have recently spoken out against the high costs of journals, these costs can be massive and prohibitive for many academic institutions. While it's no secret that universities are money-making enterprises, it's disheartening to see knowledge and information tucked away or inaccessible where even the author of the essay is not able to freely redistribute his work.

It's a flawed system that often seems to bury ideas rather than facilitate their transmission and it certainly doesn't help that things have certainly quieted down on the game studies front in the past couple of years. There was a big boom in the mid 2000's and many academics and game journalists were excited at what serious academic analysis of video games would bring. They still are, it's just important to ensure that all the hard work and ideas poured into these critical essays reach the masses. And while some professionals are still not convinced the gaming masses would care much for critical analysis anyway, it's important for up-and-coming critical thinkers in the field of game studies to know that their ideas can be shared in open-access publications where like-minded thinkers can easily access them. 

Many scholars will experience this issue at some point in their academic career and it's important not to overstate the issue here and make it seem as though there is an over-abundance of game studies research being done across the globe because there certainly isn't. Even if there were, it would hard to tell because of the closed off nature of academia. If the upcoming generation of scholars suddenly starts producing an influx of game studies research, they're much better off presenting it at comic, sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming conventions. Better yet, they can pitch the essays to major gaming sites or self-publish short books on-demand. In fact, most budding writers would get more traction and reach a more relevant readership by having their articles mentioned on Gamasutra's very own “This Week in Video Game Criticismâ€ï¿½ column.

Then the question remains as to when graduate programs will take those pop-culture conferences and websites seriously enough to start granting admission to students that present at them, or better yet to students who forgo academic journals in favor of being published in gaming focused outlets like Game Developer Magazine or Gamasutra. Aspiring students can only hope that it will qualify as enough supplemental material to convince a graduate program to grant admission to a student and it might be another decade for a cultural change to take place before we find out. 

It's sad too. Those engaged in the academic conference/journal rigmarole are genuinely hoping to further the field of game studies and give the medium an even greater sense of academic legitimacy, something that many in the video game industry are always championing as a valiant pursuit.  Unfortunately, while the industry often seems desperate to prove its legitimacy in the artistic, academic, political, legal, socioeconomic, and psychoanalytical arenas, academia can be an ill-fitted avenue for actually achieving this. 

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