Games Institute members present research at the Canadian Game Studies Association annual conference

Thursday, June 9, 2022
by Emma Vossen

Each year many GI faculty and student members present at the Canadian Game Studies Association conference, better known as CGSA.

GI faculty member Gerald Voorhees is currently CGSA president and organized this year’s conference with the assistance of the CGSA executive.

This year nine GI members and Alumni presented a wide array of research ranging from the games industry and education to the depiction of animals in games.

GI members also participated as reviewers, panel moderators, and adjudicators for CGSA’s best paper competition.

If you are interested in connecting with any of these members about their research, please click on their names to be redirected to their profiles.


Nicholas Hobin (English Language and Literature)

“There are No Humans Left: The Fear of Posthuman Identity in Bloodborne

PhD Candidate Nicholas Hobin explores the ways that video games blur the line between human and non-human animals. He first discusses Red Dead Redemption 2 and how the player must hunt and kill animals and wear their pelts as part of the gameplay. He then examines the tradition of transformation of humans into something animalistic in gothic horror narratives such as Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella The Great God Pan and the 2015 video game Bloodborne.

Hobin explains that the player “navigates a city plagued by an illness which turns humans into beasts while managing their own beastliness as a means to grow stronger.” He argues that stories like these demonstrate a transgression across the normally strict border between animal and human. The character Eileen the Crow in Bloodborne is an example of this transgressive narrative development.

Hobin explains that humans are often seen as “not animals,” so when fiction imagines humans as animals, or as part animal, this creates anxieties in players. He argues that these games expose anxieties around an agenda that is seen as wanting to “unseat humanity, or at the very least destabilize it, from its central position in the world.”

Aleksander Franiczek (English Language and Literature, First Person Scholar)

“Creative Misuse of Gameplay Capturing Technologies: Narrating and Reflecting on Gameplay in Virtual Spaces”

PhD student and First Person Scholar Associate Essays Editor Aleksander Franicszek discusses the ways players use gameplay capturing features that are built into gaming consoles in an act of “creative misuse” to “materialize and reflect on their virtual experiences.” Franciszek examines screenshots from his own playthroughs of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (DQXI) and Nier: Automata and narrates them with captions inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. He explains that many of the screenshots were taken while wandering the landscapes of these games or conversing with the NPCs of the world.

Franciszek argues that there is something more profound happening between game and player than mere entertainment or “commercialized consumption” when a player reflects on their gameplay experiences through “image-based gameplay reflection.”

Franciszek hopes “that this project points towards the potential for players to learn from a sustained mental engagement with immersive videogame experiences through (mis)using gameplay capturing technology as a tool for personal reflection rather than social projection.”

Dr. Steve Wilcox (Wilfred Laurier University, GI and First Person Scholar Alumni)

“Social Sensemaking at Play: Spiritfarer and the Art of Enactive Intersubjectivity”

Assistant Professor and GI alumni Steve Wilcox examines the concept of “social sensemaking” in relation to the game Spiritfarer. He uses “4E theory” which argues that human cognition is “embodied through our senses and lived experience, embedded, in social and cultural context, extended through collaboration tools and media, and enacted through sensemaking and directed behaviour.”

Wilcox’s talk focuses on sensemaking practices which are “ways of perceiving, thinking about, and interacting with the world that facilitate our embodied capacity to navigate and negotiate the world.” People navigate the world using many perspectives, and this includes their own but also other subjective perspectives such as their friends and family members.

Wilcox applies these ideas to the management sim and platformer Spiritfarer in which the player has to work around the preference and needs of NPCs. Spiritfarer exemplifies social sensemaking as the gameplay “fundamentally involves the discovery and adopting of sensemaking practices and habits that facilitate how we negotiate and navigate the play space.”

The player must make sure that the NPCs that board their ship are comfortable and happy, which involves finding specific resources to build their homes and cook their food. This process of relating to each NPC changes the meaning of the larger game world and its resources for the player who must accommodate each spirit’s needs and preferences so that they can move on to the next life.

Wilcox concludes that “games like Spiritfarer—show the potential for gameplay to foster inclusive, compassionate communities.”

Dr. Jason Hawreliak (Brock University, GI and First Person Scholar Alumni)

“Accessible Scholarship: An In-Progress Study of Middle-State Publications in Game Studies”

Assistant Professor and GI Alumni Jason Hawreliak presented his research about middle-state publishing with co-author and PhD candidate Venus Torabi. First, Hawreliak and Torabi define middle-state publications (MSPs) as “online outlets which attempt to bridge the gap between traditionally scholarly venues like journals and less formal venues like blogs and social media” that “provide the timeliness and succinctness of a blog while retaining the rigour and context of a conventional journal article” and “bring scholarly ideas to a wide audience in a timely and accessible fashion.”

Hawreliak and Torabi gave examples of middle state publications such as Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Ontological Geek, Memory insufficient and the GI’s First Person Scholar before diving into their research. This research project is examining the type of content you see on games criticism compendium/archive Critical Distance and is looking to determine “the line between a middle state publication and games criticism site.”

They argue that MSPs are a way to make scholarships about games more accessible to those who don’t have access to content behind academic paywalls, as well as a way for academics to publish critical scholarship much more quickly. While an academic journal might take a year or more to publish an article, MSPs can work with authors to publish their work while a game or cultural event is still fresh. Therefore MSPs are giving academics “a forum for talking about these trends as they appear and morph in real-time,” where the goal is to “construct intelligent, sophisticated discourse without relying on esoteric jargon.”

Hawreliak and Torabi have performed an online scan of MSPs from 2009 to the present day, it and they plan on creating an online portal in which this information can be accessed as a “database and living archive.” They are also conducting interviews with those who have worked at MSPs to identify patterns, strategies, and challenges of running an MSP. One thing they have found in their early results is that often when publications “go under” it is due to finances and pressure on early career scholars to publish in “official” academic journals.

Dr. Emma Vossen (The Games Institute)

“Moving Beyond Battlestations: PC Building, Gender, Labour, and Beauty”

GI Research Communications Officer Emma Vossen discusses the experiences of building a PC and how it was deeply informed by the sexism of computing culture and history. While she initially thought she was disinterested in building a PC, she later realized that she was afraid of the ways it would affirm stereotypes that women are “bad with computers” or “bad with technology.”

Vossen’s previous research looks at how women often use disinterest as a tool to “shield themselves from the inevitable rejection of games culture.” While she was critical and aware of this behaviour in relation to games, she did not see herself modelling it in relation to computing. She explains that by seeing herself as a “simple casual consumer”, she “never had to confront” her  relationship “with the computer as a machine, as a tool, or as a cultural object.” She later found YouTube videos of other women struggling with confidence and internalized sexism while building their PCs which helped her understand these feelings.

Vossen then dives into the history of computing (1943-1988), uncovering how women were foundational to the creation of the first computers and computer programming. Sexist power dynamics meant that computing was coded as “male”, and many women would grow up thinking they were inherently bad with technology. Vossen explains that while women are socialized to fear breaking things, men are socialized to break things and make mistakes to learn. For women, something going wrong indicates incompetence, but for men, it indicates a simple mistake. Women are then “disempowered” by an “assumption of incompetence” that is a recent historical construction, not a historical fact.

She concludes by discussing the masculine aesthetics of personal computers and their components and how the very constrained aesthetics of computers are a form of gatekeeping women from computing. Vossen explains that many people, not just women, “who don’t identify with the techno-masculine norm” are now “using DIY strategies to create their own alternative computing aesthetics that stand in resistance to the stereotypical binary of male or female gamer aesthetics.” 

Betsy Brey (English Language and Literature)

“Narrative Simultaneity and the Paths Unchosen”

PhD Candidate Betsy Brey discusses the series of games, The Dark Picture Anthology (DPA) and their complex multipronged narratives. Brey argues that scholars should be examining games using narrative logic that follows “all possible paths” and “all narrative possibilities”, not just a single or traditional linear path. This means a proper examination of games like DPA would include playing games multiple times, taking into consideration multiple endings in which different characters live or die, for example.

Brey calls this “narrative simultaneity”, which she defines as “the overlap of temporarily incompatible narratives.” Brey argues that all these game narratives exist simultaneously and that we should embrace the “narrative impossibility” of the temporality of games with multiple contrasting narratives and endings.

In the DPA games, time takes place in chunks where the narrative progresses by switching from character to character. Temporality is also affected when time slows down during decisions and quick-time events that affect the outcome of the narrative. A timer counts down while you are making decisions or reacting to quick-time events; if time runs out, you lose your chance to make that choice or action.

Despite complicated narratives found in games like these, often there is a single ending of many endings that is considered the “canon” or “true” ending by either fans or developers. Brey argues that as scholars, we should treat all simultaneous narratives and endings as equally valid and essential to the overall narrative simultaneity of the game.

Dr. Jennifer R. Whitson (Sociology and Legal Studies)

“The State of the Games Industry”

In her talk, Assistant Professor Jennifer R. Whitson calls out schools and organizations that encourage students to pursue careers in the supposedly lucrative esports and gaming sector when research has shown that these fields are already overcrowded, riddled with discrimination, and don’t sustain lengthy careers.

Whitson discusses a study she is a part of called “The First Three Years”, in which graduates of games programs are interviewed about their education and career repeatedly over a three-year period. Whitson and her fellow researchers are looking for answers to questions such as: are there really lots of jobs in this sector? Is this industry actually lucrative for its employees? Are these carers sustainable? And lastly, “is access to these careers in games equitable in any way?”

Whitson points out that for “nearly two decades” academics have been highlighting the terrible working conditions in games, including substantial wage gaps between men and women (15%) and between artists and programmers. For example, 74% of those in games surveyed in 2021 felt that there was discrimination in the industry, and only 12% got paid for overtime. Whitson points out that part of the reason that people leave games after an average of only five years is that once developers enter their 30s, it’s not stable or lucrative enough for those looking to have children or secure mortgages.

The First Three Years team has found through their interviews with students graduating from games programs that students are aware of the state of the industry and therefore are not expecting to get a job in games when they graduate. They found that sometimes they only know one person from their program who has actually “landed a job in games” and that students are carrying huge loads of student debt but only expecting to make a very small amount (less than 40K a year) upon graduating.

Whitson points out that all data collected by other academics and the “first three years” team indicates that “there are way more grads from game programs than the industry could ever sustain.” While the industry is growing, it hides the “reality of poor pay for precarious workers”, and they hope their data will put pressure on the industry to respond to the realities of the experiences of games students and new graduates. 

Dr. Alex Chalk (York University and First Person Scholar)

“Actual Play as Labour and Leisure: Finding the “Play” In Gaming Media Production”

First Person Scholar Commentaries Editor Chalk discusses the genre of “actual play” media and how it ties into discourses around gaming and labour. “Actual Play” is a transmedia genre focused on recording or live streaming tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs). These recordings often become podcasts or YouTube “shows” like the popular Critical Role or The Adventure Zone.

Chalk interviewed two dozen producers of actual play content, including podcasters and streamers and found that creating actual play content is a lot of work in addition to “play.” Most creators are often held in comparison to shows like Critical Role despite not having the same networks or budget. In addition to creating, recording, and editing content, those live streaming also have to deal with the chat, which is often “disruptive to the story and the flow of play.”

Chalk found that the more one tries to professionalize or monetize their content, the less they enjoy playing TRPGs. One participant said that they are “giving up some of the fun” as it becomes a work obligation. Chalk, therefore, asks, “why are so many people doing it” why not just play without all the extra work?

He found that creativity, community, and culture had a lot to do with it. Actual play producers felt like producing the content (as opposed to just playing) was a creative outlet for them. Others found community through actual play and developed “relationships and friendships with other producers” in the space. Creators also found it a way to “intervene in the larger culture of tabletop roleplaying games” by modelling positive representation and playstyles.

Chalk concludes by saying that while actual play was making play more like work, it also “gave rise to structures of living and working that allowed producers to attend to their affective creative and cultural needs as well as their material needs” despite the economic pressures. Chalk found that “commodified gaming cultures may have a lot to teach us about the future of work”, both “economically and culturally.”

Andrew Bailey (OCADU and First Person Scholar)

“Platformization in the Museum: Unity, Minecraft, and the Mackenzie Art Gallery”

First Person Scholar Essays Editor Andrew Bailey, who has a PhD in art history, discusses how game engines and game platforms are used within the contemporary art world. Galleries and museums have turned to games and game platforms during the pandemic to continue sharing work when physical attendance was not possible.

Bailey focuses on an exhibition organized in Minecraft at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. The exhibit was run by digital operations coordinators who highlighted the games in a virtual exhibition. Artists got to walk through their games with the curators on stream on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch so that they could give more information about their process and inspiration and answer questions from the audience.

Bailey complicates the concepts of the “platform,” “art platform,” and “platformization” by examining digital and non-digital definitions and theories of various platforms. He asks how the platforms involved in these digital art exhibitions, including Unity Minecraft, Twitch, YouTube, etc., affected the art produced in this context.

Bailey concludes that these platforms are “tools that art institutions can use to connect local and international artists, audiences, and intermediaries in ways that might not have been curatorially considered or administratively approved prior to the onset of the pandemic.”