Dr. Emma Vossen: The Journey There and Back Again

Thursday, May 12, 2022
by Sid Heeg

If Emma Vossen’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she is one of the earliest members of the Games Institute (GI). She recalls the conversations in the basement of the PAS (Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology) building on campus or the Rum Runner bar in downtown Kitchener (in 2013!) with Dr. Neil Randall and other graduate students about what the GI could be. After defending her dissertation in 2018 and setting out from Waterloo, she has returned to her old stomping grounds for the next stage of her career as the GI’s Research Communications Officer.  

So why here? And why now?  

To start, Dr. Vossen began her PhD in 2012 with the intent to study comics and sexuality. On the side, she was interested in games and gaming culture and chose the University of Waterloo in part because of the English department’s focus on digital humanities. She had heard rumours about the beginnings of a game studies publication, First Person Scholar (FPS), as well as the GI itself. While intrigued, during her first two years of study, Dr. Vossen was “in denial” about wanting to study games. She had been obsessed with games her whole life but never imagined she could be a game scholar. 

Before starting her PhD, Dr. Vossen crashed Dr. Randall’s game studies graduate class for a week; she even completed the readings before the class began and she was also the "eager beaver" answering all of Dr. Randall's questions. But, when it came to thinking of her future career path in the academic space, she continued to feel self-conscious about pursuing game research as a career. She had spent so much time with other gamers being treated as the token “Girl Gamer” – a role she did not enjoy – and was concerned she didn’t have thick-enough skin for the field. Over time, Dr. Vossen got involved with FPS as a contributor and continued her research into comics and sexuality, focusing on Alan Moore’s Lost Girls 

It wasn’t until she was approached by the then-FPS Editor-in-Chief, Steve Wilcox, that Dr. Vossen joined the FPS editorial team as editor of FPS’s commentaries section the same week that #GamerGate began. She wanted to explore the implications of these events and saw FPS as a space where it could be discussed in a more formal capacity; shortly thereafter, FPS began publishing academic writing on #GamerGate. Dr. Vossen herself made a full commitment to studying games and games culture for her PhD and took over as Editor-in-Chief of FPS.  

Around this time the physical GI opened, and Dr. Vossen wanted to make the space as inclusive as possible for marginalized people especially queer, women, nonbinary, and trans folks. She and fellow PhD students Elise Vist and Judy Ehrentraut started the GI Janes, a gaming group for people who didn’t identify as cis men. This carved out a space for conversations about issues of discrimination and belonging in games, especially during the height of #GamerGate when, in 2012, the YouTube series Tropes vs Women in Video Games, created by Anita Sarkeesian, went viral. For Dr. Vossen, seeing people talking openly about the same issues she had been privately thinking about for years was revolutionary and she wanted to add to what Sarkeesian was doing. 

As #GamerGate continued, the movement became extremely hostile to anyone that didn’t fit into the normative aspect of what women were supposed to "look like" in gaming culture; in particular, trans and non-binary people. Dr. Vossen tracked these conversations to study peoples’ experiences of marginalization in games culture and to look at what types of gender performances were allowed and what specific roles, actions, and performances were tolerated. Unfortunately, this work couldn’t be done without directly examining 

#GamerGate, which resulted in Dr. Vossen receiving a plethora of online harassment. Sometimes, she felt that all people wanted to talk to her about was #GamerGate, when the issues were much larger and older than this hostile movement. Dr. Vossen’s research and experiences would culminate in her 2018 PhD dissertation titled “On the Cultural Inaccessibility of Gaming: Invading, Creating, and Reclaiming the Cultural Clubhouse” supervised by Dr. Randall.

In her dissertation, Dr. Vossen used her own personal experience and reflects on her time within games as a player, and an academic, from the point of view of ‘cultural inaccessibility’, or how women and other marginalized people are made to feel unwelcome in gaming spaces and culture, both online and offline. Following her defense, the newly minted Dr. Emma Vossen felt torn between academic and non-academic jobs; she was a postdoctoral fellow, an instructor, and a lecturer at Sheridan College, Seneca College, York University, University of British Columbia, the Ontario College of Art & Design, and Laurier University among others. When the position of Research Communications Officer opened up at the GI, she thought to herself, “It feels weirdly like this job was made for me.” One of the things she’s looking forward to the most is getting to know the membership and their research that’s happened since she left the GI as a graduate. She is currently working on designing and implementing strategies to get that research out there— or "spreading the good word of the GI” as she put it. 

Later this year, Dr. Vossen (as herself, not GI staff) will be publishing her second edited collection called Historiographies of Games Studies: What It Has Been, What It Could Be published by Punctum. Her first book, Feminism at Play (Palgrave, 2018), was co-edited with GI members Drs. Kishonna Gray and Gerald Voorhees and is part of Palgrave’s Games in Context series. Historiographies of Games Studies is Emma’s “hands down the thing I’m the proudest of in my career.” It looks back at the field of game studies deconstructing the historical narrative and spotlighting individuals who didn’t receive credit for the work they did in the early years of the field. Dr. Vossen’s own chapter unpacks the history and ongoing influence of the much discussed “Ludology vs. Narratology” debate. She believes that Historiographies of Game Studies will be ground-breaking for the field and that it will be a great starting point for future scholars looking to understand the complex and often mis-recorded history of the field. What if the history of game studies wasn’t white, straight, cis, and male? What other stories and histories are out there?