There have already been two superlative posts made by TAG researchers William Robinson and Skot Deeming on the subject of DiGRA 2014; rather than trying to cover the conference as a whole as they did, I’m going to write this post primarily about my own experiences and feelings at DiGRA. Please don’t mistake my narrow focus for narcissism or academic myopia: being my first time delivering a (potentially controversial) abstract in an international forum, I think it’s understandable that, for the duration of the conference, an undue proportion my attention was focused on my presentation, how to improve it, how to appear as if I wasn’t – in fact – having a nervous meltdown, and how to prepare so as to minimize my chances of committing some egregious gaffe. If Skot and Will have provided us with surveys of DiGRA 2014, consider this one n00b’s phenomenological or autoethnographic account.
Rewind to this past August. By the time I had arrived in Snowbird and gotten settled in, the name ‘DiGRA 2014’ had been rumbling around my mind like a tenacious stormcloud for the better part of a month. For me, it was to be the second of two Game Studies conferences I happened to attend that summer, and only the third academic conference I had been to in my short career as a game scholar. The presentation I was slated to deliver, entitled ‘Equal Opportunity Murder,’ had been given a trial run earlier in the year at the Canadian Game Studies Association Conference at Congress at Brock University. The paper is a close reading of racial representation and stereotyping in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed as conducted through an analytical framework borrowed from Yasmin Jiwani’s work in the field of critical race theory. The paper compares AC with other contemporary games and finds that, although it leaves much to be desired, the developers of Assassin’s Creed expended great effort in an attempt to faithfully and fairly represent the crusade-era Middle East with as little racial, cultural, or religious bias as possible (my critique of the game ultimately centered on the notion that Ubisoft’s understanding of ‘without bias’ was very problematic, but that’s a topic too expansive for this forum). It was an interesting paper to read and write, but it was exploratory and rambling – I had trouble coming to a conclusion that was sufficiently succinct and high-stakes enough to be of interest. My unease with the work was apparent during the presentation at CGSA; I had managed to keep it together through sheer force of improvisatory wit and familiarity with the paper, but that can’t change the fact that the presentation had little actual flow or cohesion.
As you can imagine, I was mortified by this reality: truthfully or otherwise, I was possessed by the notion that the audience at CGSA had simply taken pity on me and, as such, had refrained from tearing me a structurally superfluous new orifice in the question period. Knowing that DiGRA was larger idiomatic tank with bigger proverbial fish, I found myself trapped in a downward cycle of dismay at my prospects of delivering a good presentation for this tougher audience.
I’ll give you the conclusion first; the presentation went off without a hitch and was well received by members of the audience and those following along on twitter alike.
But how did I get from being a gibbering, anxious wreck to finishing the presentation in good form? The answer, methinks, has a lot to do with the community we have here at TAG. Two of the most important things I’ve learned over my time as an M.A. Media Studies student are: 1. Writing isn’t the final step in completing a research paper, it’s a process in and of itself; and 2. You don’t generate much in the way of new ideas in a vacuum. The first can be demonstrated in the enormous help that PhD TAGster Jason Begy was in the process of refining the abstract. After a particularly circuitous and engrossing conversation with him the week before DiGRA, we got onto the subject of our respective presentations. He was presenting a chapter from the book he’s co-authored with Mia Consalvo on the subject of the now-defunct MMO, Faunasphere; it was, eloquent, bitingly witty in that patently Jason Begy way, and had only a couple diminutive cracks along which I could trowel my suggestions. Comparatively, my presentation was an unsalvageable mess. He didn’t seem perturbed, though, and offered the following advice to me (heavily paraphrased): ‘you don’t need to ‘solve’ the game; nobody’s looking for or expecting answers or a definitive reading of a game. It’s perfectly acceptable to simply say that you’ve unearthed this novel new framework from a different discipline and applied it to an interesting game to see how it worked, and that in so doing, you might be providing Game Studies as a field with a new tool that we have, so far, lacked.’ No sooner had he finished speaking, it dawned on me that I had completely overlooked the more meritorious of the two contributions I was poised to offer. The paper wasn’t about Assassin’s Creed – not really: the game simply served as a testing ground within which to run an analytical framework through its paces for the first time. After this revelation, the presentation practically wrote itself. Paradoxically, I felt surer of myself and my work in aiming for a more modest conclusion; also, my presentation suddenly felt like something that other scholars could walk away from with a new methodological tool or – even better – a burning desire to refine or replace the toolkit I had presented with an even more acuminous one.
With one obstacle down, one more significant hurdle remained: stage fright. At CGSA, over half of the audience was comprised of people I had no reservations about addressing by their first names. At DiGRA, I assumed (and, as it would turn out, correctly so) that I would be unfamiliar with a large portion of the audience, except, of course, for the seminal and world-renowned authors who had contributed to the founding of Game Studies as a field.
The higher stakes of the DiGRA presentation, I knew, was going to wreak havoc on my composure and the quality of my diction. Despite the monumental amount of preparation work I put in, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything would come apart into laughably small pieces, and that my first arrival on the stage of international Game Studies would be irrecoverably remembered as hilariously inept. The solution to this problem – and the reification of the second lesson I mentioned above – came from a source that, at the time, seemed unlikely. It came in the form of a certain Skot Deeming, another PhD TAGster, who was in the first stages of presenting his work on the afterlife and long tail of game consoles (specifically, the ill-fated Dreamcast) in their post-consumer/post-market incarnations. Skot is someone who, in my appraisal to that point, had never lacked for confidence or public speaking acumen. It was in this mindset that I rationalized a curious thing that happened at the outset of his presentation: Skot started by introducing himself to the crowd, taking pains to make mention of the unusually large cohort of scholars who were in attendance from Concordia University. As a coda to this observation, he pointed me out of the audience as an example of said burgeoning posse, and then proceeded to say hello to me and ask me how I was doing. I immediately responded in a conspicuously chipper manner, affirming that all was right in my life and returning the favour of asking him how he was.
Our unorthodox exchange completed, Skot proceeded to deliver a masterful, on-point presentation and I thought nothing more of the odd intro… Until Skot approached me later that day and thanked me for being present at his talk and being willing to broker the other side of his intro. Much to my surprise, Skot confessed that he, too, was suffering from an abundance of anxiety about the delivery of his work, and that having a friend to bounce simple pleasantries off of proved to be a remarkably potent remedy to said trepidations. It hadn’t struck me that breaking out of the traditional presentation paradigm – rather than trying to follow it to the letter – might have been the key to assuaging my own phobias. I have always been of the opinion that I’m a far more eloquent public speaker when I feel as if I’m having a conversation with the audience, rather than simply delivering lines. As such, I asked Skot if he would mind – provided he was in attendance the next day –if I repeated the same exchange-based intro with him at the outset of my presentation. He agreed, made good on my request, and the personifying effect it had on the usually-monolithic audience was palpable. Aside from a few attempts on the part of my scurrilous tongue to sabotage words in mid-formation, my presentation went exceptionally well, and I doubt I would have come up with Skot’s solution (as I now call it) without his first testing it out on me… Perhaps I could even be so bold as to suggest that without a familiar face in the audience, the thought might not have occurred to him!
By way of a moral to this short story, I owe a whole lot to the people I’m surrounded with at Concordia. I chose to recount the input from Jason and Skot because of how germane their contributions were to DiGRA specifically, but the truth is, whatever success I’ve found as a fledgling scholar in Game Studies belongs to the entire community at TAG. I’d be hard pressed name anyone who frequents the lab spaces who HASN’T been monumentally helpful – usually at the expense of their own time and effort – to myself or others around me. Game Studies is a new field, to be sure, and it can also be a lonely one; there were many attendees at DiGRA whose home communities were probably much smaller or nonexistant, and I feel for them. We’re really lucky here at Concordia, surrounded as we are by academic superstars who are friendly and helpful to a fault; not only has it made studying here immeasurably more fun (usually in the form of spontaneous Gang Beasts throwdowns or endless late-night Crusader Kings 2 marathons), but has contributed to my growth as a scholar in a myriad of significant ways.
The next DiGRA is this coming May in Germany. Maybe this time I’ll stop and smell the flowers.