Playing in the Interdisciplinary: The Gaming Industry as both Social and Technological
Text by Limes Olsson
I recently did an interview with Nadia Ruiz-Bravo, PhD candidate at University of Gothenburg and part of the TechnAct research cluster. I asked her about her research and her interests, as well as her work in the research cluster.
Nadia’s research is interdisciplinary, ranging from informatics and digital technologies to collective action and social movements. More specifically, it is focused on the gaming industry, with all that it encompasses: the games, the development, the community and so on. There is a lot of crossover between those who play and engage with games, and the ones who create and develop games, so trying to divide it into distinct categories is almost impossible. “Developers are usually gamers, gamers are also doing some sort of design or they are also developing something,” Nadia tells me, mentioning that she also has tried her hand at developing games.
Nadia’s current research is on the case of the Hong Kong protests and the video game company Blizzard. During a livestream Blitzchung, a professional e-sport player of the game Hearthstone, expressed support for the protests calling for an independent Hong Kong. Due to this Blizzard, who are behind the game Hearthstone, banned Blitzchung from competing and took away his prize money. This sparked a lot of outrage in the community surrounding Blizzard games, not just Hearthstone. The community took to various online platforms to spread messages and critique Blizzard’s actions.
Nadia has focused mainly on the spamming in chats on the streaming platform Twitch and posts on the discussion platform Reddit. For example, the phrase “Free Hong Kong” was spammed in the chats on Twitch streams in an attempt to raise awareness. There was also information being shared about the situation in Hong Kong, but also a lot of internet trolling. For example, the phrases “Free King Kong” and “Free Donkey Kong, he did nothing wrong” were widely circulated, potentially just causing confusion and drowning out the messages containing information about the Hong Kong protests.
There was also a prevalence of sharing fanart and images, one of them of Mei from the game Overwatch, another one of Blizzard’s games. Due to the character’s nationality being Chinese, she was a great candidate to represent the people siding with the protestors and to portray as being in favor of liberation. In addition, there were mods and different character skins created by the community, which could be used in the game to give Mei a different look (one example was her regular body armor but painted with Hong Kong’s flag). Mods like these can be used as resistance, it is a way of reclaiming a character or a game for yourself: “They do mods and then they just play. ‘I will play your game, but I will make it mine,’” Nadia explains. The hopes of using Mei as a figure for the pro-independence protestors were that China would put a ban on Blizzard’s games, and thereby punishing Blizzard for their actions. This never happened, but Blizzard eventually listened to the critique and shortened the time on Blitzchung’s competition ban and returned the prize money.
I asked her how Nadia came to be interested in studying the gaming industry. She told me about how she has been interested in video games for pretty much as long as she can remember. From playing Prince of Persia on the family’s PC, to convincing her parents to get a PlayStation to be able to play Dance Dance Revolution. “But I also played so many other things. […] I am super interested in video games!”
Nadia has a background in engineering and she has previously worked in the tech industry but found that it lacked the social aspects. There was very little or no space for the discussions of for example ethics, and with parents who are both in the humanities Nadia felt the need to address the hard sciences and the social aspects together. Getting to do a PhD within this conjunction of the social and tech is therefore something Nadia is very happy to be able to do. It is important and very interesting, she expresses and describes it as “a search for theorizing around technology, and the social part around it or in it. That’s basically the most important thing for me.”
Finally, we talked about future hopes and dreams. Nadia has no shortage of ideas for things and topics she would like to look into, and there is a plethora of issues and phenomena in the gaming industry that one can research. Nadia mentioned GamerGate as one such example, the widespread and vicious harassment of women developers back in 2014. Another example would be the phenomenon of crunch. Crunch is what excessive overworking is known as in the gaming industry, and it is being more and more recognized as an unhealthy practice, and not as ‘good work ethic’, which previously has been the argument in favor of it. It gets the games out on the market faster but at the cost of the workers, and sometimes also the quality of the games. But recently there has been a shift in the gaming community where many are expressing being okay with waiting longer for games if it means that there will be no crunch. However, crunch is still very prevalent in game development. It contains power dynamics and gender issues and it seems to tick most of Nadia’s boxes for interesting research. “Everything is mixed there! So I find that super interesting.”
Nadia’s research interests seem to always be located where the social and technological meet, a space that evidently has a lot to offer. Getting to interview Nadia really opened my eyes to new understandings of the video game industry and how it is much more complex and varied than one might assume from a first look. An assumption seems to be that primarily young boys and men are interested in video games, something that my talk with Nadia contested. People who enjoy video games can come from any background with any sorts of experiences. And just as gamers come in an infinite variety, so do video games.
Limes Olsson is a master’s student in gender studies at University of Gothenburg. Their primary interests are queer studies, queer theory and power relations. Limes has previously had an internship position at the research cluster TechnAct. During the spring of 2021 they will be writing their MA thesis.