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An Academic Press for Games

Posted by Bart

Peer-Review-Nick-Kim-cartoon3-resize Big news. It seems like USC is launching a game publishing venture and this would be something approaching the first academic press for games. At the moment the only relevant information is in a Wired article and there is nothing that I can find on the USC Games website itself but certainly congratulations are in order. This is a bold move from one of the top game design programs in the world. Can I be a little concerned though?

When I read the Wired article my first response was joy… a number of us in game studies and design have been talking about this sort of thing for a while. But then the article seemed to suggest that the effort would be primarily about publishing USC student games, at least at first. So then I was thinking, no, no, no…..

To my mind the idea of an academic or scholarly press is the opposite of a PR platform with the mandate to increase the visibility of student projects and enhance the reputation of the institution. This kind of PR totally needs to happen and excellent student work should get help to reach audiences or markets but there are many kinds models of independent presses and publishing collectives that could do this.

What marks the USC effort as different of course is its reputation or cultural capital not the principle of increased access ( is excellent for access for instance). The idea being that if a game is “marked” as a USC published game then it has the USC quality seal of approval and if you respect and trust that USC seal (as evidenced by the association of that games program with some of the top indie hits of the last few years) then bob’s your uncle.  But there is a fine line between promotion and quality control (or even curation as Tracy refers to it the interview with her in Wired).

In the old days of scholarly publication that fine line was mediated by the peer review and editorial process. This is a vast and mostly invisible, often high flawed and sometimes deeply conservative, labour process that produces not just certification (a kind of “truth” value in the case of science and aesthetic/moral value in the case of art) but it is also part and parcel of the social construction of academic and artistic practice itself. We have mostly forgotten that peer review is not about the review itself but about the process that binds reviewers to a community of practice…. this is an old science studies point about the role of organized collectivities in adjudicating truth and falsehood, right and wrong, art and crap and so on.

Of course this matters in the sciences because without these processes of adjudication our planes would fall out of the sky, we wouldn’t be able to trust drugs that come on to the market, and all sorts of other icky things. Yes, yes…. its flawed and messed up and we do see drugs on the market that we shouldn’t trust but that is why peer review is a question and a problem not a solution.

What would this mean for games?  Well, games are not science… they are not making truth claims that need to be certified (well maybe some serious games do but that is another issue).  Games are a little more like art where the jury system stands in for a kind of peer review. There are all kinds of certification that go on in juried art; is the work original? is it beautiful? is it challenging or radical? does it demonstrate skill or expertise?  The point is not what is being certified but that there is a process of certification…   one of the rules of that process is that you don’t certify your own stuff.  If you do that then it’s promotion not certification. There is a HUGE difference and universities and academic researchers all over the world are forgetting this.

This is why the gold standard in the science is double blind peer review… it often doesn’t work as intended and there are many other great models but the principle of it establishes enough distance between the author and the certifier that all-else-being-equal we can trust this more than we can if the author was certifying (i.e. trumpeting) their own work.

Now we need an academic press for games because we need and want ways of certifying games that are distinct from the dominant economic modes of certification that most game makers have to deal with. We need people to be able to make games and publish them without having to worry about profit. This is true of science and other kinds of knowledge production as well as art.  An academic press for games should stand in the publishing ecoystem between the market and anything goes (you don’t need any special publisher for ‘anything goes’ anymore – just put it on, or blog it). But the only thing that can produce that quantum of difference between the market and anything goes is a mode of certification.  It’s costly and labour intensive and it’s never a panacea and often reproduces structural inequalities but nevertheless, therein  lies the crucial public service of academic publishing.  It’s not because USC says this or that game is special that we should care about it but rather that there is a process in place for attributing specialness that we can trust. Indeed, the first games I want to play from the USC Games Press will be the non-USC games that I hope will be published.

I am pretty sure that if academic imprints for games can get going we will begin to see even more curious and different sorts of games and game-like experimentation (though this will partially depend on career incentives within the academic and para-academic communities). The question of the economics of these vanguard publishing projects still remains, but I envisage a moment in time when publisher advances of 5-10K might be possible for academic and non-academic game makers from all over the world to publish certifiably wacky new experiences just as we have been publishing certifiably wacky new ideas for generations.