James Malazita

James Malazita (Ph.D. Drexel University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science & Technology Studies (STS) and the Associate Director in the Games & Simulation Arts & Sciences Program (GSAS) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. His forthcoming book, Enacting Platforms: Feminist Technoscience and the Unreal Engine, examines how race, gender, and epistemology are enacted through digital technologies and game development practices.

Contact information:
malazj at rpi.edu
OrcId: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3206-3682

Rebecca Rouse

Rebecca Rouse, PhD is an Associate Professor in Media Arts, Aesthetics and Narration at the University of Skövde, Sweden. Rouse’s research focuses on both the history and practice of storytelling with new technologies. Rouse creates projects for museums, heritage sites, interactive installation, and theatrical performance, all with the thread of investigating and inventing new modes of storytelling, as well as accompanying historical research into connections of today’s emerging media with technologies of the past. www.rebeccarouse.com

Contact information:
Rebecca.Rouse at his.se
Orchid ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3509-8293

Gillian Smith

Gillian Smith (PhD UC Santa Cruz) is Director of the Interactive Media & Game Development (IMGD) program and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA. Her research interests are in computational creativity, game design, computer science education, and the intersection of traditional crafts and computation. Her interdisciplinary work merges technical research in AI and HCI with creative practice in textiles and games, with a view towards addressing social issues and broadening participation and perspectives on computing.

Contact information:
GMSmith at wpi.edu

Disciplining Games

by James Malazita, Rebecca Rouse, Gillian Smith


How is game research constructed and enacted as a discipline, or anti-discipline, in contemporary culture and academia? In a field often heralded for and defined by interdisciplinarity, how is identity developed? Who gets to say what counts as games scholarship, and who can participate? In this article we offer a counter-reading of game research's oft-deployed concept of interdisciplinarity, highlighting how interdisciplinary commitments can serve to support neoliberal formations of the university and undermine political scholarship as much as they can serve as a liberatory framework. As the field of game research continues to institutionalize, with undergraduate programs and new graduate programs growing in size and number, and as new junior scholars enter the academic workforce, conversation is needed about the character of the field’s interdisciplinarity. How game research can structure itself to act as a supportive and protective force for junior, marginalized and precarious scholars is not just a question of university administration, but of the epistemic underpinnings of the field itself.

Keywords: interdisciplinarity, knowledge construction, institutional critique



During a discussion following Nick Taylor’s “Postdiciplinary Postures” 2023 Nordic Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) keynote talk, which argued for a postdisciplinary exploration of the edges of game studies, several conference attendees expressed support for a perspective on game research as a non-discipline, perpetually open to creative re-positionings by outsiders. However, one pre-tenure scholar made a pointed critique of this stance, noting the difficulties that those in her cohort of early-career games scholars have faced regarding tenure and promotion. She reflected on both her own experiences and those of her peers in which they were continually asked to satisfy requirements of other disciplines, justifying their focus on games through the logics of other, more traditional disciplinary lenses. Working to develop game research as a more cohesive discipline could be framed as an equity project, she argued. and suggested that the comfort some of the more senior scholars feel with their perpetual “outsider” or postdisciplinary positioning towards games is a reflection of their privilege of security within the academy as post-tenure holders.

This article explores some of the political and disciplinary identity tensions in the broad field(s) of game research (which, for our purposes, includes research, teaching, and administrative structures across the humanities, social sciences, computer science, information technology and the arts). The contemporary forms of this interdisciplinary array of practices are marked by the shifting roles of digital and analog games in a pandemic era, the consolidation of games undergraduate programs across the globe and the emergence of games graduate programs -- often distinct from the disciplines in which their faculty were trained. Just as scholarly fields can redefine their objects of inquiry to take advantage of new governmental programs or sources of private funding, so too can they style their disciplinary identities in strategic ways that allow them to survive -- whether that survival means aligning with systems of power, or in casting work in prior, legible scholarly modes. Tensions around institutionalization -- and its structural impacts upon scholarly work -- have been at the heart of the development of game studies over the past two decades. In a way, questions of institution building and structural “legitimization” have been more central to the construction of games as a field than game objects themselves. In a short retrospective celebrating Game Studies’s twentieth anniversary, Espen Aarseth, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, reflected upon the publication’s
-- and more broadly, the field’s -- multidisciplinary success (Aarseth 2021). Aarseth highlights that game studies’ successes are both epistemic and institutional: games are increasingly accepted as legitimate objects and methods of study, while journals such as Game Studies and Games and Culture provide new structural legitimacy for academic games scholars during their graduate careers and in tenure cases. Tenure cases and the legitimization of hybridized design and critical work are at the heart of the recently published “Critical Game Design” special issue of Design Issues:

Many researchers find themselves at the intersection of “studying” and “making” games. Many did or do so at their own precarity. The fields and departments in which they find themselves working have very specific metrics that often fit more squarely in the “studying” aspects of their work. Only as they are able to establish themselves are they able to justify the “making” components of their work. (Malazita and O’Donnell, p. 7)

Sebastian Deterding also explains the current shape of game research as resulting in part from a context of institutional survival (2017). Similar to Aarseth, Deterding argues that the emergence of discrete, interdisciplinary game studies conferences in the 2000s was a needed response to perceptions of videogames as a medium unworthy of scholarly attention (2017). Conferences not only provide spaces for scholars to gather and ideas to germinate, they also provide institutional legitimacy. Opportunities for national and international funding, keynotes, peer-reviewed presentations, citational networks and impact factors are all important forms of currency for job searches, tenure cases and grant applications. However, the institutional success of these initiatives, Deterding argues, has led to a kind of “pyrrhic victory” (2017): the legitimization of games as objects of study across disciplines has, in some ways, invalidated the need for discrete games spaces in the first place. Deterding notes that this victory has measurable impacts: game scholars publishing less in interdisciplinary game journals and more in disciplinary ones, an overall “shrinking” of field-specific output, and the narrowing of an interdisciplinary array of scholarship into a smaller band of “multidisciplinary” game studies scholarship. Such scholarship is marked primarily by scholars from the humanities, cultural studies and design working in disciplinarily siloed ways.

In the interest of maintaining the institutional gains made by game studies, Deterding proposes potential prescriptions: that the narrowing epistemic cultures (Knorr Cetina, 1999) of game studies could do more to produce “middle range” theories (Merton, 1968) concepts that offer analytic bridges across disciplinary divides and between empirical and theoretical research. Embracing a potential move toward game design studies that could more fully bring practitioners and applied research into the fold. Deterding notes that the interdisciplinary design fields have long thrived as spaces where both practice and “critical corrective” (Deterding 2017, p. 540) are represented. Though Deterding centers interdisciplinarity at the heart of his pitch for the future of games, he is also careful to note that interdisciplinarity is itself a contested term, and a political one too:

One should not forget that interdisciplinarity is itself a rhetoric, an aspiration, and a means to an end -- promising that discipline-crossing research produces innovation that furthers intellectual and social progress (Frodeman, 2010). As Jacobs and Frickel (2009, p. 60) conclude: “We do not believe that the case has been fully made, theoretically or empirically, for the general superiority of interdisciplinary over disciplinary knowledge.” Hence, one may question whether interdisciplinary game research is ultimately worthwhile. Then again, interdisciplinarity is valued and rewarded by policymakers, research funding bodies, and university administrations -- a political asset that should not be needlessly abandoned. (p. 541)

Like Deterding, the authors of this article share a desire to chart a more robust scholarly and institutional future for the field of games. However, in this article, we take a contradistinctive approach. Deterding’s diagnosis frames the field of game studies as an ever-narrowing band of disciplinary tracks, which alienate practitioners and epistemic communities outside the remits of those tracks. Leaning back into interdisciplinarity, Deterding argues, can not only bring practitioners back into the fold, but also align scholars with those in positions of power to best reward and support game research’s efforts. Benefits of interdisciplinarity can, of course, include unique synergies across and between perspectives, serendipitous collaborations and insights. Critically-oriented scholars and scholars with marginalized identities have noted the freedom and flexibility that interdisciplinary work can provide or both knowledge and justice (Salter and Blodgett, 2021; McKittrick, 2020). However, as we will argue, interdisciplinarity also has an oppressive side.

We see scholars of games self-stylization as an interdisciplinary field inherently limiting -- not only in terms of advancing new streams of research, but more importantly in terms of which identities and positionalities are permitted in the field in the first place. It may sound counterintuitive, but the character of interdisciplinarity leads to political and epistemic foreclosure, rather than openness. As such, moving towards a more fruitful and politically open game research field requires difficult conversations about disciplining and institutionalization, conversations that are often short-circuited by the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity and its political valence. Interdisciplinarity, we will argue, is most often in service of institutional power. While the field’s self-construction as interdisciplinary has opened doors for new research practices, it can also manifest as an “anti-disciplinary” force that resists broader integration of critical scholarship into scholarly communities and game design practices, and through a tyranny of structurelessness (Freeman, 1972) protects traditional concentrations of power in both industry and the academy. Our continued assumption of and desire for interdisciplinarity limits the possible futures of play -- and of who gets to play -- in game scholarship, research and design.

Such an analysis is a big swing to take. Partially this is due to the nature of critiquing a “field,” which as Alex Gekker has noted in a recent game studies article is “a fool’s errand… [which may] end up as nothing more than a pedantic rant against a fast-moving target: After all, a scholarly field is rapidly changing and contains multitudes” (Gekker, 2021, p. 73). It is also due to the multifaceted institutional formations that “games” take within academic and research settings, such that even beyond intellectual debates it becomes difficult to pin down exactly who and what make up the game research “field” when it is discussed. Deterding’s article, for example, is centrally concerned with game studies, a field marked by its humanistic origins and orientations. It is unsurprising then, to find a lack of computer scientists, social scientists and other fields represented in Deterding’s analysis, who congregate at distinctly different interdisciplinary game research venues such as FDG and CHI Play. Not that simply combining these venues would make for a unified game research field -- the First 2016 Joint Meeting of the technically minded FDG and the humanistic DiGRA, for example, was an exciting but tense one, where steep cultural and epistemic divides among what “counts” as legitimate knowledge and on appropriate disciplinary purviews of research were thrown into stark relief. It is telling that there was no Second Joint Meeting.

As both an illustration of the issue and also in order to help find some footing, we the authors begin here with a brief description of our own positionality, and how our day-to-day experience informs our own mapping of the “games” field. For us, games as a field extends beyond game studies to include design, production, interactive media development, HCI, programming and AI research. In many ways, each of us exist in the positions that Deterding advocates for as a potential future of the field. All three authors are in leadership positions in games programs at three different universities. Each of these programs are what we could call “design-oriented,” with connections to major game studios across the entertainment and non-entertainment sectors, rigorous instruction in software and the arts, studio-based classrooms and a cross-curricular infusion of critical perspectives on games. Each of our programs feature both industry-facing skills training as well as opportunities for academic research, though the modal desired employment outcomes for undergraduate students is industry placement, whether defined as AAA studios, independent or startup spaces, or “games” as directed across other industries, including biomedical and military applications. Our programs are staffed by humanists, artists, computer scientists, psychologists and social scientists. In a time of ever-increasing budget cutting in higher education, as well as broader attacks upon the arts, humanities and “critical” scholarship in the United States (where two of our three universities are located), our programs remain relatively well-funded, reconfirming Deterding’s observation that interdisciplinary programs with direct funnels to capital are highly desired by governments, funding agencies and administrators.

These kinds of programs are so desired, in fact, that despite the arguable narrowing of games scholarship that Deterding traces, we have at the same time seen rapid construction of graduate programs in games at both the Master’s and Ph.D. levels. This success, though, changes the calculus of the already fraught “interdisciplinary” question. At the undergraduate level, core disciplinary and cultural differences between, say, computer science faculty and humanities faculty can largely stay within the realm of the academic (though, as Brendan Keogh and Taylor Hardwick have recently tracked, there exists a prominent focal split between those undergraduate games programs housed in STEM programs and those housed in Humanities and Arts programs (2023)). This way of preparing graduate students for roles in game research only further highlights the divides among multidisciplinary tracks. Edward Melcer and Katherine Isbister map game research as fragmented between more computationally-motivated practices (such as Computer Science, HCI and AI) and interpretive practices (such as the humanities and social sciences), resulting in a cultural split between game research as “building things” and game research as “critically analyzing things” (2017, p. 4). This fragmentation is such that representative conferences for game research, publication practices, knowledge practices and identify formations are so radically divergent that developing a methodology to include them all is quite difficult (Melcer & Isbister, 2017, p. 1). Foundational debates about whether or not games are tools for research in other fields, useful methods for improving social conditions, or material embodiments of broader flows of power and capital not only shape what kinds of research questions are asked, but also determine in part how those questions are answered. What counts as “in bounds” of the research question, and how do we map our social and epistemic relationships with our objects of study?

There is an interwoven political element to interdisciplinarity as well, particularly for games, whose recent history includes documented attacks on politically and culturally-engaged scholars in the humanities/social science-led game studies community (Vossen, 2018). There is no “magic circle” which demarcates game research within (or apart from) broader cultures of gaming. Not only do our students come from and return to gaming industries and communities of play, but members of those communities are a part of our research traditions as well, sometimes as informants, subjects and collaborators, and sometimes as adversaries and trolls (Chess & Shaw, 2015). The broader conversations and social practices of game cultures permeate game research as a field, resulting in, among other things, longstanding tensions surrounding the “ideal” identities of games scholars: should we be distant critics, technical practitioners, or aca-fans (Salter & Blodgett, 2012; Kocurek, 2016; Richard & Gray, 2016; Vossen, 2018)? That these scholarly identities also intersect with racialized, gendered and marginalized identities should not be under-considered. It is notable that Aarseth’s discussion of the precursors of contemporary game studies include Mary Anne Buckles, a PhD student at the UC San Diego in the mid-1980s, whose potentially groundbreaking scholarship applying literary theory to early games was so resisted by her faculty committee that she declined to pursue an academic career after receiving her Ph.D. (Aarseth, 2021, citing Erard, 2004).

Interdisciplinarity can sometimes act as a political or epistemic short-circuiting, displacing hard conversations about constructions of knowledge and politics by carving the field into multidisciplinary purviews. Institutional practices, histories and politics thus become further shaped by ideological forces and epistemic regimes internal and external to the field. Researchers in fields become less able to identify the shape and boundaries of these ideological/epistemological apparatuses, and, even when they do, are ill equipped to critique or respond to them. Moments of epistemic rupture, which often have outsized impacts on women and scholars of color, become reduced to interpersonal “bad faith” acting or chalked up to differing standards of behavior among different disciplinary cultures. Responses, then, are both narrow and shallow, in that they presume ethical and political disagreements to be interpersonal, rather than structural, epistemic and even ontological. Analyses of such ruptures have long been present in feminist, queer, Black and critical game design (Flanagan, 2009; Grace, 2014; Humphreys, 2019; kopas, 2019), as well as in critiques from Indigenous communities and the Global South (LaPensée, 2018; Schleiner, 2021). However, though these writings and design practices are often celebrated by the games research community as “evidence” of their rich diversity of scholarship, they are at the same time erased from mainstream design histories and canons (Chess, 2017; Humphreys, 2019; Salter & Blodgett, 2021), or demarcated as separate branches of “critical” or “ethical” scholarship. Again, multi-disciplinary rhetoric offers an easy way to sideline the political valence present in all research at all times.

Just as academics cannot separate our responsibilities training students from our responsibilities making the industry and gaming communities safer places for those students, we also cannot abdicate responsibility for the individual safety and professional success of junior scholars in academic spaces. We game researchers -- both in our programs and in games programs across the world -- are training future generations of researchers who will be shaped by game research as a field, with an implicit canon, with a legitimized set of scholarly and political practices. These will not be scholars studying games as an object of study in their “home” disciplines. Games will be their home. What will be the foundations upon which that home is built?

In the remainder of this article, we seek to offer a counter-reading of the concepts of interdisciplinary and disciplinary structure from how these concepts have often been deployed in game research. We read to highlight interdisciplinarity’s political nature and reverberations. We begin with a deeper dive into the concepts of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and anti-disciplinarity, and how those concepts have always served as an entanglement of epistemic and political commitments. Without a clear view of the political dimensions of disciplinary formation, game research risks functioning more as an unreflective anti-disciplinary project, and one guided by a general principle of institutional self-preservation. Anti-disciplinary formations make it easier to finance and continue games programs in accordance with the neoliberal university, but at the same time place the careers and safety of emerging games scholars -- particularly marginalized scholars and those who hybridize technical and political inquiry -- at risk.

Constructing Disciplines and Anti-Disciplines

In the summer of 2017, the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG) conference keynote described a speculative robotic sexual revolution, in which machines and robots replace human partners and/or augment human-human relationships via networked visual and haptic interfaces. While the talk itself was fairly uneventful, the online conversations that followed have become infamous in the Games research community, and illustrative of tensions in the field regarding who can speak and what is valued (Salter & Stanfill, 2023). The talk included notes on the superiority of a machine partner over a human one due to the programmability of “desired” feminine-coded personality traits, such as patience, submission and servitude. The talk also featured video of a haptic tele-kiss between the lead researcher and one of his women research assistants. Audience members’ criticism of the seemingly-overlooked gendered and consensual dimensions of the video were responded to with dismissive remarks. Later, online, this dismissiveness gave way to targeted and abusive comments, attacking individuals, their institutions and their work, using similar rhetorical form popularized by social media rage-provocateurs like Alex Jones and Donald Trump. While incidents of rupture at gaming conferences are usually associated with popular-facing events, such as GamerGate and the Penny Arcade Dickwolves controversy, academic game conferences are not an exception to the presence of toxic behavior. Displays of gendered, racialized and classed constructions of knowledge are ever-present. At the same FDG2017 conference, a second keynote from Microsoft Research was little more than an infomercial for the Microsoft HoloLens head mounted display (HMD), which also showcased a misogynist vision of the technofuture in which a young woman who could not figure out a home maintenance issue was able to telelink through the HMD to her father for help.

The online conversations that followed the FDG talk, as well as the researcher’s later naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon as the Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE)’s 2018 keynote speaker, resulted in conference boycotts and ACE’s eventual shutdown, the establishment of conference codes of ethics, and pleads for a general culture of “constructive critique” in games research (SASDG Board of Directors, 2017). In response, the SASDG (Society for the Advancement of the Science of Digital Games) Board of Directors, the organizing body of FDG, released a statement that condemned the behavior. In their letter, SASDG characterized the infractions and responses:

In the days since the conference we have received further information and feedback from FDG attendees about [the] keynote and its contents. Attendees have interpreted his research and its methods in many different ways, often at odds with one another. What is unanimous however, is the belief that [the speaker] chose not to engage with critical comments in any constructive way, instead turning to personal attacks to signal his response. Constructive critique of research projects is central and necessary to any such discourse. The analysis of moral and ethical issues is a familiar part of such critique, and is nearly unavoidable when a project engages issues of gender and sexuality. Such critique should be met with the same spirit of goodwill and intellectual generosity as would.

After the conference we saw a serious violation of such norms of generosity and goodwill. The personalization of discourse through ad hominem attacks, in which the object of discourse shifts from the critique to the critiquer, and the use of aggressive, belittling, or otherwise intimidating language, is a serious violation of the norms and values of the FDG conference and of our community. (SASDG 2017)

The fraught dimensions to the response were twofold. First, there is the call for more polite, constructive critique from conference attendees, which frames the problem as the researcher and his respondents for failing to engage in “reasoned” conversation about explicitly misogynist material, rather than questioning the conference organization for allowing such research to be presented as a keynote speech in the first place. Framing the controversy as one of bad behavior as opposed to the result of structural conditions highlights a second issue: the delineation of “moral and ethical issues” from those of “less fraught technical issues.” Determining which issues are inherently “fraught” and which are not is itself a political and epistemic decision, just as the boundaries of “the social” and “the technical” are also fluid, perpetuating the false division of “technical” problems from “social” problems which have been long documented in science & technology studies (STS) scholarship (Latour, 1993; 2004).

We use the now-infamous FDG talk not to call out anyone, but to highlight how an epistemic problem insufficiently grappled with, can lead to structural problems which can lead to individual fallout. The inability to speak to the gendered and political valence of the research left little room for recourse to the woman junior faculty member who was the subject of the speaker’s attack, with the solution characterized as merely the need for more polite conversation. Rather than read this event as a particular organizational failing, we read it here as a political and epistemic consequence of game research’s anti-disciplinary culture and structure.

How might we more directly engage with the ever-shifting object of “a discipline?” David Crookall proposes a formalist definition of disciplines in his analysis of fields studying games and simulation, arguing that disciplines include a body of scholarship, theory and assessment practices, as well as social infrastructure like teacher training and conferences (2010). However, formalist approaches often fail to recognize the social and political nuances that also contribute to disciplinary boundary maintenance. More socially pragmatic definitions articulate disciplines as “self-contained… communit[ies] of experts, with distinctive components such as shared goals, concepts, facts, tacit skills, and methodologies” (Nissani, 1995). This rhetoric of self-containment manifests in popular discourse, which tends to bracket academic disciplines teleologically: disciplines can be demarcated based upon their pragmatic outputs. Computer science produces code and algorithms, art produces aesthetic experiences, philosophy produces argumentation. This segmented and functionalist imagination of disciplinary work calls to mind the Foucauldian analysis of modern disciplines, which posits disciplinary specialization as a result of larger social systems of control. The institutionalization of “discipline” creates bodies and beings suitable for an industrialized and militarized workforce and government (Foucault, 1975). Disciplining results in the production of “docile bodies,” or subjects that are malleable enough to be arranged into larger productive social systems.

While Foucault’s analysis of disciplining bodies largely concerns punitive or explicitly violent institutions like prisons, torture and the military, we can certainly see parallels in the academy. For Foucault, the disciplining process occurs epistemically and institutionally. Epistemically, the disciplines demarcate boundaries of knowledge: not only what domains of knowledge disciplined individuals are responsible for knowing (scientific, mathematical, philosophical, sociological, etc.), but also the hierarchies of knowledge for which individuals are accountable. A lab technician and a lab manager, for example, each maintain and sustain different parts of the scientific apparatus, and therefore manifest different sets of practical knowledge, in spite of nominally being a part of the same discipline (Knorr Cetina, 1999). These different practical knowledges, all of which are necessary for the continuation and production of the field, become arranged as part of a “prestige asymmetry” (Martin, 2018), where those higher up on the hierarchy, such as those engaged in “foundational” research production, are viewed as being more central to, and more representative of, the discipline as a whole (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021).

Through a Foucauldian reading, even interdisciplinary scholarship operates as a system of surveillance and control. Deterding’s taxonomy of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinarity, for example, acknowledges that most cross-disciplinary work operates either as auxiliary knowledge practices working next to one another, or as the cross-pollination of methods and literature (Deterding, 2017). The epistemic practices of how different disciplinary practitioners share and collaborate with one another, even if implicit and unacknowledged are highly structured. The different disciplined parts of the intellectual body -- the artists, the scientists, the humanists -- each operate in their distinctive zones of knowledge, yet still contribute to a productive system. Such a system is, in theory, easily organized, easily managed, efficient and does not necessarily disrupt the individually disciplined body in “non-productive” ways. As each researcher’s domain is effectively limited, they are not forced to deeply engage with radically other ways of knowing the world, thus reinforcing in their minds and practices the epistemological hegemony of their own discipline. Docile bodies are thus simultaneously productive while also reinforcing their own docility.

When disciplines are framed as conservative “intellectual straightjacket[s]” (Christie & Maton, 2011, p. 2), it’s easy to see why calls for inter-disciplines are attractive. Citing Jacobs and Frickel, Deterding describes inter-disciplines as the near-inevitable results of scholars responding “to new epistemic questions and social issues brought about by new technologies” (Deterding, 2017, p. 5, citing Jacobs & Frickel, 2009). For the more progressive, politically engaged communities of scholarship, interdisciplinarity becomes constructed as a vehicle for moving through bourgeois systems of bodily and epistemic regulations, which Rosalind Krauss has labeled as the “post-structuralist anti-disciplinary reaction” (Krauss, 2019). Anti-disciplinarity can be constructed as a vehicle for epistemic disobedience (Pratt, 1992; Mignolo, 2011); a point that is particularly salient in feminist, queer, decolonial and critical race scholarly communities, who recognize the dominance that white men and their canon have historically exerted within knowledge regimes. It also recognizes what Georgina Born has called the “subordination-service” model of power imbalances in interdisciplinary work (2010), where one discipline (often the social sciences or humanities) is placed in service of “rounding out” a discipline whose research is constructed as “core” or closer to reality (usually the sciences).

But despite what Deterding identifies as game scholars’ “subscrib[ing] to romantic, progressive values of ‘games for games’ sake’ and games as a means of individual expression and questioning the social order” (Deterding 2017, p. 15), the most common shapes of interdisciplinarity within game research rarely reflect politically or epistemically liberatory positions. Instead, we can read games’ interdisciplinary slant as a form of anti-disciplinarity, one marked by indifference -- or resistance -- to disciplinary integration in favor of economic stability and funding accessibility.

In his studies of 1960s British cybernetics, Andrew Pickering romanticizes the anti-disciplinary spirit:

It is interesting to note that cybernetics as a social formation was somehow orthogonal to mainstream institutional structures. In the university, for example, cyberneticians were to be found in all sorts of departments, but they evidently felt themselves closer to their fellows in other disciplines than to their non-cybernetic departmental colleagues, and they invented all sorts of social mechanisms to bring themselves together regardless of their special fields: dining clubs, conference series, national societies. This is one sense in which we can see cybernetics, and all the fields that thematize emergence, as incipiently not just inter- but anti-disciplinary. As an academic myself, I’m attracted to this anti-disciplinarity. (Pickering, 2008, p. 132)

However alluring this story might be, anti-disciplinarity does not necessarily represent a thoughtful political moment, and instead can be cynically leveraged to reinforce the libertarian rhetoric typical of “move fast and break things” tech cultures. Such rhetoric is well exemplified by Joichi Ito, venture capitalist-turned-director of MIT’s Media Lab, in this extended quote:

The world, certainly the academic world, can be seen as a bunch of circles, which are the disciplines, and there’s a lot of white space between those circles. You can argue about how big the white space is, but there definitely is white space. If you work in the white space, you often can’t get federal funding, which, in turn, makes it difficult to generate the body of work necessary for tenure in traditional academic departments. It is also difficult to raise significant money from individual corporate sponsors unless you can demonstrate that the research outcome could benefit the corporation in a preconceived and obvious way. But at the Media Lab, we work on things the funders probably haven't imagined yet. That's the space that we feel is our challenge. One of the first faculty searches I participated in as the Lab’s director was for a “Professor of Other.” The description said the candidate needs to be “anti-disciplinary.” What we meant is that candidates had to be proficient in at least two orthogonal fields, and that what they wanted to do couldn’t fit in any existing discipline. … This is permissionless innovation. We didn’t ask if we could do this, and we didn’t check on what the rules were. We just did what we could do. (Ito, 2017, pp. 23-24)

Here, Ito presents anti-disciplinarity as a solution to bureaucratic decision-making, or to limited views on legitimately fundable research. The Media Lab, which focuses on the development of objects and tech experiences -- as exemplified by the “Demo or Die” mantra
-- supposedly circumvents these stodgy infrastructures, providing fertile ground for the entrepreneurial “Others” who chafe against traditional disciplinary boundaries. These others, of course, are marked by their privilege to freely move within and throughout the system, without “checking the rules,” in order to break it. This dovetails with Jonathan Kramnick’s observation that contemporary academic calls for boundary-breaking work and “discipline crushing” explicitly justify themselves through management and business theory (Kramnick, 2017, citing Siskin, 2016), another instance of the epistemic subordination of the academy to corporate logics and politics. Anti- and interdisciplinarity are not epistemically, politically, or ideologically neutral.

The above spirits of anti-disciplinarity construct a particular liberatory epistemic object (Knorr Cetina, 1999). In the case of the Media Lab, the object of “innovation” operates as the orienting axis; in cybernetics, the object of “emergence.” These epistemic objects serve as “media of attraction” (Rouse, 2016), objects of mediation whose material, epistemic and disciplinary boundaries are negotiated by the diverse array of practitioners drawn to those media’s open-endedness. A part of stabilizing these media is the concretization of the para-institutional systems that surround them, such as the Media Lab itself or cybernetics conferences.

Might the construction and maintenance of an anti-disciplinarity epistemic object sound familiar to game researchers? The FDG response letter, breaking apart ethical questions from “less fraught technical issues,” provides a glimpse at the underlying logics that maintain current interdisciplinary formations in games: an unspoken division between technical and social research questions. This is not to say that divisions and fractures within a field are inherently wrong -- they may even be unavoidable. Deterding highlights that multidisciplinary game research communities can practice together by looking to the boundary objects (2017) in the field, which Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer define as “objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (1989). Boundary objects allow adjacent and overlapping research communities to find common sites of productive research activity “in the absence of consensus,” (Star 2010, cited in Deterding 2017). Multiple research paradigms concerning games can examine “the same” objects of analysis using divergent methods with different goals.

While there is a certain pragmatic beauty to looking toward boundary objects to hold multiple disciplines together, Star and Griemser remind us in their own work that continuous “management” of boundary objects is vitally important in collaborative networks. Power and social dynamics play an important role in defining “what counts” as the boundaries of a boundary object, maintaining how that object remains useful, and therefore also “who counts,” or who is able to produce and maintain boundary objects (1989). The long history across multiple communities in game research of constructing games as “inherently interdisciplinary” (Mäyrä, 2009; Waern & Zagal, 2013; Aarseth, 2019; Salter & Blodgett, 2021) can sometimes seems to suggest that the nature, boundaries and competencies of various disciplinary practices are themselves pregiven. Constructing game research as the focus on an inherently interstitial object of study -- rather than as a collection of constructed knowledge practices -- glosses over how researchers are produced and made capable of seeing and reading these objects. It obscures how those objects are co-constructed with-and-through their inquirers, and how the researcher’s own epistemic subjectivity becomes reconfigured when stances are taken, boundaries are drawn and knowledge is negotiated (Barad 2007). As Kramnick (2017) has argued, the “consilience” model of interdisciplinarity suggests a prefixed, universal ontology; a world where the object of study need not be questioned or fundamentally defined, only described. Object-centered interdisciplinarity constructs knowledge workers as nodes of information, contributors of bounded (though at times fuzzy) pieces to a larger puzzle. Engagements among multiple epistemological and ontological frames can be reduced to the necessary translation work involved when piecing the puzzle together, allowing every knowledge worker to contribute without having their underlying ontological, epistemological, or ideological assumptions questioned.

At its best, interdisciplinary collaboration becomes an active synthetic and reflexive production of knowledge among researchers of multiple trainings and positionalities (Deterding, 2017). At its worst, interdisciplinarity becomes a form of blackboxing that allows different disciplines to construct the object of “games” through their own disciplinary ways of knowing. This blackboxing limits the capacity for epistemic criticism or growth, as it substitutes an analysis of power with interoperability. Disputes about the nature of games, their political inflections, their boundaries, their impacts, their inter- and intra-actions, become attributed to a plurality of disciplinary focal differences, rather than recognized as epistemic and ideological stances. Although epistemic pluralism has been used to justify anti-disciplinary stances in game research (Krzywinska, 2006; Mäyrä, 2009), an uncritical wielding undermines the feminist and decolonial dimensions of the concept (Haraway, 1989; Longino, 1987; Harding, 1991; Harding, 2008; Pohlhaus, 2011), in that it fails to address the systems of power that structure negotiations of knowledge boundaries and legitimacy in the first place.

Melcer and Isbister, like the 60s cyberneticists, suggest ortho-institutional practices for managing the anti-disciplinarity of games. Such practices include co-hosting conferences, developing better collective research repositories, and synthesizing the divides between conference-based, journal-based, and book-based fields and publication expectations (2017). These suggestions dovetail with conversations had during the FDG 2017 “Game Design and Development Curriculum” panel (Lawley et. Al., 2017). Leading scholars and administrators of inter-departmental game programs positively noted the flexibility, especially in terms of financing, that eschewing traditional disciplinary and institutional structures affords them.

However, the impacts of developing disciplinary or interdisciplinary institutional practices echo beyond tactical strategies for navigating the neoliberal university (Kirschenbaum, 2016). They also produce political and epistemic cultures (Knorr Cetina, 1999): ways of knowing and defining what objects of inquiry are, how they are best approached, who best approaches them and how they fit into a larger ontology and cosmology (Stengers, 2010). Disciplinary practices produce epistemic subjects -- knowledge workers with particular techniques for making sense of the world -- and epistemic objects -- the “analytic cuts” (Barad, 2007) researchers construct to define and bound their objects of inquiry (Knorr Cetina, 1999). These epistemic subjects and objects are co-constituted; subjects are made capable of seeing -- in particular ways -- the objects that we research. These ways of seeing and knowing become calcified through epistemic infrastructures (Malazita & Resetar, 2019): the tools, methods, practices, publications and discourses that legitimate our cultural and epistemic capital -- in turn, our very identities -- as researchers. Disciplinary boundaries are constantly constructed and renegotiated by the knowledge workers who make up that discipline (Knorr Cetina, 1999; Latour & Woolgar, 1979).

As such, disciplinary advancement and knowledge practices rarely move forward in a consensus-based or evidence-based research progression. Shifts in knowledge practices are generally not representative of leaps in knowledge or understanding, but rather of a redistribution of epistemic capital. Shifts in epistemic capital can certainly be due to a “better” construction or analysis of the field’s epistemic object. However, as Kuhn notes, such shifts are just as likely to be the result of interpersonal feuds, intra-citational practices of a newly tenured group of former graduate school colleagues, or the retirement of a prior generation of scholars (1962). Disciplinary knowledge construction is thus as agonistic (Mouffe, 1999) as it is incremental. It features the competition of multiple ways of knowing and thinking, multiple perspectives and legitimation frames working to overcome one another, and is as grounded in the interpersonal and political as it is the theoretical and the methodological. Questions of identity, belonging, perspective and ideology are just as central to disciplinary practices as objects of study, methods, methodologies and canon.

Not recognizing power in epistemic pluralism causes game researchers to non-reflexively “map” the boundaries of our field in ways that enforce particular political and ideological formations. A “bird’s-eye view” of game research would not represent the map of the field, but rather someone’s map of the field, constructed and territorialized from a certain epistemological and ideological stance (Harding, 1995). Take, for example, Paul Martin’s 2018 map of the field (2018), which arranges a clustered ordering of citational relationships and keywords. While Martin’s topic modeling/citational network approach creates a useful visualization of branches of games research topics, it somewhat predictably cleaves games apart from constructed disciplinary fields, with those fields mapped as tangentially related (such as the case of “health” and “technology” game research), or seemingly oppositional (such as “technology” and “communication/humanities”).

The field’s topical focus, as an independent variable, constructs the shape and texture of attempts to map it -- as all citational data are prone to. Drawing the map “makes real” certain arrangements of the field in particular ways (Latour, 1986). Maps and boundary-drawings are arguments, and powerful ones at that. What would a map of game research look like if a different orienting system were used? Say, if game research were mapped ideologically and epistemologically? If maps were made about the underlying assumptions about culture, politics, technology, and their interrelations were rather than about than discrete topical objects? As Aaron Trammell and Aram Sinnreich’s own mapping shows, the organizational patterns, interrelations of scholar and field and connections among different research topics become radically reconfigured (2014), as maps of game research along ideological and epistemic commitments reveals political and knowledge practices that do not neatly fall along traditional disciplinary divides.

There is no single or necessarily enduring way of defining, mapping, or constructing games as research objects, nor game studies as a field of study. Games -- both the objects of analysis and the fields that examine them -- are constructed, and constructive processes are shot through with epistemic and political power. Conversely, the assumption of an anti-disciplinary stance does not remove that power. Instead it blackboxes it, and allows centers of power or funding agencies to assert their epistemological and ideological agency in lieu of a considered disciplinary practice.

Therefore, we contest Bogost’s 2009 DiGRA keynote provocation:

...I’d like to return to this question, “What is a game?” in the hopes of reminding us what it really is: not a strategic, rhetorical, or political question, at least not primarily so. Rather, it is an ontological question. It is a matter of metaphysics, not a matter of field-building. (2009)

Constructing games and game research is -- and has always been -- deeply political, rhetorical and strategic work, even as it is ontological. The choices game researchers make will legitimize who belongs in the field, who doesn’t, what kind of knowledge work is allowed to occur and the identity and labor conditions of that work.

In summary: as much as it may operate as a liberatory force, game research’s anti-disciplinary stance can be read as one that reinforces neoliberal rhetorics. It obscures lines between critical inquiry and profit-driven management techniques, compartmentalizes political and ideological content and constructs the research of games as a collection of discrete, at-times-interlocking products over the collective building of a disciplinary project. The stance has ripples and reflections across both “foundational” research and on-the-ground practices, which include assumptions about what counts as legitimate research, to which boxes various research problems belong, how debates and conversations should be structured, and whose voices are amplified, whose are attenuated, and how those voices are situated at conferences and other venues. While splits, tensions and frictions within a field are unavoidable, relegating them as a side-effect of interdisciplinarity, rather than working toward a collective mapping and working-through, both limits the kinds of research that are possible on games while also putting junior scholars and graduate students at risk.

Conclusion: Playing with Our Future

This article is written during a context of authoritarian attacks on higher education, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom (Giroux, 2022), but across the globe as well (Carnut, 2021; Bhatty & Sundar, 2021). Despite the long histories of these attacks emerging from anti-democratic and fascist movements, their public rhetoric is often more neoliberal: that education must not be biased, that speech should not be policed, that perceived redundancies among academic units increase cost and that the primary role of higher education is in job and vocational training.

While we are not arguing that the game studies as a field is itself anti-democratic, we should be wary of how anti-disciplinary rhetoric and structures -- whose alignment with corporate and governmental interests in the 2000s made games possible in the first place -- could be weaponized when those same interests become hostile to higher education. Defining interdisciplinarity as a core aspect of the field -- particularly without a deep and continuing interrogation of what interdisciplinary approaches to games mean and how they function -- maintains epistemic divides among games scholars. Similarly, it undermines our ability to collectively respond to attacks upon the field and upon one another, whether those attacks come from a conference keynote or from governments.

Where do we, as game researchers, go from here? We, the authors, envision at least three possibilities, from which to choose our own (disciplinary) adventure. First is a possibility we term the Late Capitalist Games Future. This speculative future is driven by industry, advanced by anti-democratic elements and marked by an anti-disciplinary approach. Games may even exit the academy in this future, a future in which higher education may be dominated by online education, industry-facing badging programs, and only a very small number of elite colleges with physical locations and liberal arts curricula. For games, professionalized training programs would dominate, with game studies reduced to a minor presence if any. Games would take on a governmental role in teaching mandated cultural competence, ethics, and empathy training modules, and function as a propagandistic tool for the nation state. Game research would effectively function as an organ -- and a minor one at that -- of larger capitalistic and nationalistic bodies. Processes of adjunctification and precarious employment continue unabated, as university workers who focus on games are treated as interchangeable pairs of hands for imparting a shallow understanding of game development skills.

In a second speculative future we call the Neoliberal University Future, drawing from Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades’s formulation (2000), we envision a non-disciplinary future for games, driven by other disciplines that communicate with each other very little. Universities continue much as they do now, incurring administrative bloat and mounting building costs, meaning they are increasingly risk-averse to doing things like creating new departments. Game design practice is taken up in limited and convenient ways by other disciplines as a tool for studying cognition, teaching math, as literary texts to be deconstructed, or as an artistic medium for personal expression. Game studies continues in whatever liberal arts programs remain, where important -- but ultimately internally facing -- critical scholarship is produced by dispersed scholars who gained access to their positions due to their connections to prestige networks in more “traditional” humanistic and social scientific disciplines. This Neoliberal University Future would also perpetuate the bifurcation between theory and practice in games, since the disciplines utilizing games are not particularly concerned with advancing game design or its co-production in and of systems of culture and power in a way recognizable to practitioners. This future develops along a path predicted by Alexander Galloway (2014) -- university faculty attempt to maintain their imagined historical status as the central social producers of knowledge, while also jealously grasping at the techniques and resources of better funded, more politically powerful global information purveyors like Google and Tencent. Game design thus produces unimaginative programs that sound good to university officials, but ultimately end up producing the same kinds of outcomes already emerging out of industry -- except less funded and less impressive.

Finally, we envision a third speculative future: the Disciplined Future. This possibility is marked by rigor and criticality, by agonistic negotiation that embraces friction as generative, one that seeks to surface differences so they might be made visible and open to shared inquiry. New disciplinary structures are supported by new institutional and organizational bodies that give hybrid scholar-practitioners epistemic and material ground to stand on when taking collective action. This future would also include an intentional, careful fusion of theory and practice in games, and the accompanying necessary structural changes in higher education in terms of how promotion and tenure could work for game research, how games teaching is structured, and how labor is valued. From this perspective on the future, game researchers would be poised along with other forward-thinking disciplines to help the university re-envision its function in society on a larger level. This formation of game research is also structurally reflexive, in that its ability to critically interrogate its own epistemic underpinnings sparks conversations about tenurability, identity, organization, and cross-field solidarity in ways that support the careers and labor conditions of the games scholars and workers responsible for stewarding our field.

This third “what-if” for the future of game research imagines the field in a disciplined positioning, and therefore also poised to achieve meaningful impact beyond its own domain. Can this be achieved? What is certain are the fundamental economic and political changes and attacks -- currently underway in higher education. Games are unlikely to protect and uplift the most vulnerable among us if the knowledge work around them continue to uncritically champion the business-oriented and neoliberal logics of anti-disciplinarization.



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