Searching for Games Studies

I thought I would start my blogging off talking about something that I’ve just done: searching for programs where I can do games research.  This can be a daunting task.  There isn’t really a repository of games studies programs, and games studies programs disguise themselves under more traditional descriptions.  I’m going to write my first official blog post on how I went about looking for the ten programs for which I am interested in applying.  This will include actually finding the programs amongst the academic language, how I selected from a number of different programs, and how I weeded out the ones that just didn’t fit.  I hope this can be useful to some people.  As I go along the path to applying and getting accepted to schools, I’m going to be posting more about each step along the way.

First things first, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about games studies.  Although at one time, I was interested in more professional, game design programs, I’ve decided to go for games studies.  The fundamental difference is that game design is about the actual production of games, while games studies is about the theory behind games and how games work from a research standpoint.  As a result, if you’re hoping to have me talk about finding a game design program, you’re going to be out of luck.  Besides, game design programs are far easier to find than games studies programs.  For people interested in game design, I suggest you check out the Game Career Guide (http://www.gamecareerguide.com/), which will have a lot of resources for you.  People interested in games studies can also look there (it’s still useful), but it definitely caters to the professional, rather than the academic.

Second things second, I can only really speak from my perspective.  I am a person with a baccalaureate degree in English (creative writing), living in the Phoenix area.  What this means is that my search was for graduate programs.  While this post will still be useful for people looking for undergraduate programs, it is invariably aimed at graduate school.  What my perspective also means is that I do not have direct access to many games researchers.  In Phoenix, I can count on my fingers the number of games researchers who could be available to me.  I don’t even need fingers to count the number of game design communities that I know of here.  Game design communities are a valuable resource for people interested in games studies, as they are great places to study games and speak with people who make games.  They also tend to have events (such as the Boston Game Loop) that draw games theorists out of the woodwork and create forums where people will discuss games from a theoretical perspective.

Now on to the meat and potatoes of this post.  I set out to find ten schools.  Why ten?  It’s a nice round number and I already have ten copies of some of my transcripts from some of my schools, so it was a nice fit.  I don’t know if I could have found many more, myself.  Once I got to ten, it became hard to find any more schools that caught my eye, but I may have just not looked hard enough.  If you want to go for more than ten, just remember that applications cost money (application fees, transcripts GRE scores, etc.).  If you want to go for less than ten, just remember that games studies programs are small and therefore competitive; you might not beat out the other applicants for the few spots available.

My search process consisted of a few stages.  First, I thought about what kinds of places I wanted to live in.  This was quickly answered with “a place with more mild temperatures and a good game design community.”  Second, I considered games researchers I had read and looked to see where they were teaching.  If you haven’t read any games research, I suggest you check out a survey book such as The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Mark Wolf, or First Person, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan.  Books like these offer a vast number of articles by top games researchers, and allow you to get a handle on who does research that interests you.  Third, whenever I heard about a new school I hadn’t checked out yet, I went to their website and looked for potential games studies programs.  Doing this let me find programs that I wouldn’t have even thought about before.

Once I found a single school in an area, I tried to look at all the other schools in that area.  To do this, I found Wikipedia’s List of American institutions of higher education page to be helpful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_institutions_of_higher_education).  The page is split into different states and most (not all) have sortable lists of universities.  The university links only go to the Wikipedia page for that school, but you can just go down the list and check out the school’s website.  This leads to a very good question, “What do I do when I’m on the school’s website?”

When you get on a university website, you need to navigate to their list of degree programs and then scan it for a related program to check out.  This, of course, varies from school to school, but usually you can get to degree programs by clicking on the “Academics” link on the school’s main page.  From there, you’ll need to find “program listings” or “departments” and it varies greatly.  For graduate studies, you usually have to click on “graduate school” to find a program listing.  When schools break the programs apart by department, you’ll want to look in any department having to do with the humanities, social sciences, arts and communication.  Games studies is such an interdisciplinary field that it tends to get thrown in just about anywhere.

When you finally get to a list of programs, you’ll need to scan through the list for anything that might be related to games studies.  Pure games studies programs don’t really exist, or at least are very rare, but they fall under the category of media studies.  Pure media studies programs might be disguised as “New Media,” “Electronic Media,” “Digital Media,” “Multimedia,” and others.  If you scan for the word “media” you’ll find a few.  Most schools do not have a program dedicated to media studies; media studies is often a concentration in other programs.  Concentrations for media studies usually crop up in communications programs, particularly mass communications and telecommunications.  Sometimes the concentration is put into journalism programs.  Occasionally, you can find the concentration in English, sociology and anthropology, but it is very rare.

Even if a program doesn’t list media studies as a concentration, there’s still the possibility of doing games research there.  Graduate programs are fortunately flexible, I’ve been told, and if you can’t find a program that offers it directly, just make it work in a related program.  This works best in research-oriented programs like most English and communications programs.  They usually allow you to define your own area of research.  If you’re researching something that other potential students are not, then you may be a stronger candidate by doing new and exciting research.

Be sure to read the program description, take a look at the courses available and look at the faculty for the department.  Consider how the program would work for you.  Are there classes set up that are within your research interests?  Are there any faculty who has done games research?  How flexible does the program seem?  If you are doubtful, you could always send an e-mail to the program coordinator introducing yourself and describing your interests.  The program coordinator won’t be able to tell you if you are a good candidate, but they will be able to tell you if your research interests are applicable to the program.  Expect these e-mails to take some time getting back to you; program coordinators are very busy.

You’ll probably end up with a long list of possibilities.  Look for the strongest programs for you.  Those are the ones where you would be most able to conduct your research, and where the area is amenable to you.  Most of the schools I chose are grouped in two geographic locations.  I did this purposefully.  If a lot of your schools are in the same place, it will facilitate finding a job, finding a place to live, making friends and doing campus visits.  Some geographic areas I have avoided (New York, for example, would probably eat me alive, even though there are many good schools for me there).  What is most important is that the schools you choose are schools you want to go to.  If you don’t want to go to a particular school, don’t apply for it.  Graduate school, in particular, should be about doing something you love and loving it while you’re doing it.

Well, that’s it for this post.  I hope that it will help some people find a place where they can be happy studying games.  I had debated putting up a list of the schools I have chosen and why, but I’ll reserve this for another post, if there is any interest.

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