TAG Profiles is a blog series that explores the work of current TAG scholars. Andrei Zanescu is a PhD student in Concordia’s Communication program and a recent graduate of the Media Studies (MA) program.
Before we get into your PhD research, could you tell me a little bit about what you did during your master’s degree?
For my master’s thesis I looked at the cultural representation of the Balkans, which is Central to South Eastern Europe, in The Witcher. I started working on it from the standpoint of Orientalism — the idea that the West constructs itself by creating images of the Orient — and I then extended that to the intra-European context. So how Eastern and Western Europe construct each other, problematic narratives that emerge from those constructions, and how games can capture these narratives.
How does that extend to what you’re doing in your PhD?
I think I’ve made my peace with talking about Eastern Europe over the last two and a half years, but it has gotten me to consider cultural imperialism more broadly. In particular, how a lot of games that portray themselves as historical fiction or historical reenactment embed within them a number of biases that are actually very modern. These just fly by too – people don’t tend to notice them. So there’s a lot of passive cultural education that happens which I’ve become very interested in.
So how do you take that sort of passive cultural education and maybe, for lack of a better term, unpack it?
I do a lot of textual analysis – I believe that looking at the narrative in games is important. But I’ve tried to extend it using the walkthrough method, which considers every element of a game to be important. This includes a lot of things: menus, music, interface, potential interactions, online components, and even paratexts that are put out alongside the game. Like, sometimes there are these disclaimers that say “this game is made by a diverse team of many faiths and ethnicities,” right? And that’s supposed to instill something in you when you’re playing the game.
Methodologically, it’s very semiotic. I look at specific elements and I try to figure out what is packaged within them. And there’s some writing to go along with that too, but my methodology is still pretty loose at this stage. I also do some political economic work, which allows me to look at the structures that lie underneath the game.
So you’ve looked at The Witcher specifically during your master’s degree. What games will you be you looking at for your PhD?
It’s tentative right now, but I’m very interested in the Assassin’s Creed series. It’s a series that portrays itself as cultural or, let’s say, historical tourism — players are invited to experience cultures and times that are foreign to them. It sort of produces culture as a commodity to be consumed by people. Like, do you want to be an Egyptian man, circa 50 BC, going through a revolt against the Roman Empire? Well, there’s narrative for you. Do you want to be pirate who’s trying to upend slavery in the Bahamas? Well, there’s a narrative for you. But there’s a bunch of ideas that are baked into these narratives, because they are always going to be a product that morphs those historical moments into something consumable by modern audiences.
I understand that you’re also working on a research project, Jeu Responsable. Could you tell me about that?
Originally, Jeu Responsable was supposed to look mainly at problem gambling and gaming. It was funded by Lotto Quebec and the FRQ to figure out what those look like for government legislators. Since I’ve joined, I’ve been pushing really hard to make them think about consumption in games as well as predatory game models — ones that may otherwise be completely invisible to legislators.
I’ve been working with Marc Lajeunesse from the mLab for the past year, looking at DOTA 2, the Steam Marketplace, and the esports monetization model that is rolled out every year. Specifically, how these are all pancaked together into one structure and how this structure is used to retain to users and make an ungodly amount of money from them every year. This feeds into a lot of problem gaming and predatory business model research that already exists, but is mostly relegated to slot machines, arcades, or casinos.
Where can people follow you online?