The story behind the Games Institute Podcast

Wednesday, December 18, 2019
by Marisa Benjamin

As the Research Communications Officer for the Games Institute, I tell stories about our research for interdisciplinary and non-academic audiences. I often meet with researchers and conduct semi-structured interviews with them so that I can learn enough about what they’re doing in order to write articles about their work. In these articles I can be flexible with how I communicate the research and employ knowledge translation strategies so they can be understood by many. I can eliminate many of the constraints for research dissemination that characterize traditional conference papers or journal articles. However, even with our more flexible formats, there is still a whole broader context that gets lost when interviews get translated into text.

Articles, whether they’re academic or for public audiences, strip away the context of the researcher themselves. They put the research at the centre, and push information about the researchers either to the margins or off the page, completely. The solution isn’t to dramatically overhaul the current modes for communicating and disseminating research stories as there are real, paradigmatically grounded reasons for excluding the personal context of the researcher. A solution, rather, is to add a new channel to the portfolio: a podcast. Through a podcast we not only centre the researcher as the focal point, but we disseminate through conversations to allow for more dynamic storytelling that paints a clearer, more engaging picture of the research process.

Our podcasts feature semi-structured interviews, much like the ones I was conducting as part of the writing process. In every episode, we sit down with a Games Institute researcher. Suddenly, the research is no longer a snapshot in time or a collection of decisions; it’s connected to an evolution of ideas, passions, and interests – of obstacles, mistakes, and breakthroughs. We gain an understanding of the research process in a way that illuminates facets that would otherwise remain hidden: we absorb a deeper understanding and comprehension of the impact of the work when we have a better grasp of its context.

Our format is simple: we sit down with a different researcher every episode to have a conversation surrounding their academic biography, their current research efforts, and the games they enjoy playing. We dive into conversations through leading questions that get the researcher talking, and then we follow-up with more specific questions to dig into uncovered details about the researchers’ motivations and thoughts.

Whereas some storytellers follow the shape of a semi-circle when plotting the structure of their story, our conceptual narrative structure is an oval – or, in 3D terms, a balloon. We start with an introduction about the researcher’s personal journey, then quickly slope upward with a high energy conversation about research. Episodes hit their peak halfway with a conversational transition that connects the research to playing games. The latter half of the episode mirrors the energy of the research discussion through a full discussion about how games inform research, and vice versa. As things wrap up, we tie all the pieces together and arrive back at where we began, with a conversation about the researcher’s biography.

Most of the conversation is specific to the researcher, but we do ask a few standard questions to every guest so we can have some consistency episode-to-episode. Our opening question is, “what is your earliest childhood memory of games?” We thought this would be a fun way to open the episode and relax our guest, but it surprised us because it did more than that – the responses consistently provide us with unexpected insights that open up to further understanding of the world of research.

The bulk of the podcast is a conversation balanced between scripted questions and spontaneous tangents. Our aim is to get our guest to tell stories about specific research projects or studies from a behind-the-scenes perspective. We want to know what motivated them, who they collaborated with, what frustrated them, and why they made the choices they did. From there, we move the conversation into a discussion on where the guest wants to take the research in the future. What are their hopes and passions? What are they curious about that they want to pursue through research?

Our transition into discussing games is with a conversation about how guests found the Games Institute and what it means to them that they’re a part of this community. We complete the transition with a question about how playing games has inspired the guests’ research, and then ask if research into games changes the way the guest plays. By the time we get into stories about games, the hard work is out of the way and the guest can truly relax. It’s here that we really get to see their personality come through: they showcase their natural inquisitiveness and approach to thinking about games.

We wind down the conversation by bringing all the pieces back together into a conclusion about where the researcher is positioned within the intersection of the research and games world. More specifically, we consider their disciplinary niche. What have we observed about the way their research marries their curiosities with their passions?

Our closing question is, “if you could have everyone in the world play one game, what would it be?” Not only does this question pull the audience into the conversation by giving them a call-to-action (“go play this game!”), it allows the researcher to freely talk about the broader context of the world of games. Some guests answer quickly because they have one example at top of mind that encapsulates the potentials of games; Other guests can’t give a straight forward answer, not because they don’t know, but because the question isn’t straightforward for them. For example, guests Stuart Hallifax and Gustavo Tondello study personalization, so they answered that everyone in the world should be playing different games based on their unique player preferences.

Over the course of Season 1, we brought this format to 12 guests who occupy a variety of academic positions and disciplinary perspectives. With guests who don’t play or study games, we adjust the format accordingly, such as Marina Wada, with whom we discussed the world of immersive technologies and media, or 3 Panel Contrast, with which we discussed comics. This way, we maintain a consistent mood for the podcast and still fulfill the overarching goal of centering the researcher.

Throughout the course of the year, we’ve discovered and encountered surprising insights about research reporting. The most exciting discovery was that our opening question creates relevant, insightful frames for every podcast episode. People might not always be able to pinpoint their earliest memory, but they do tell a story about growing up with games and what they learned. They recall memories of playing games, trace those experiences through time, and connect them to their academic journeys into turning their passion for games into research.

What started out as an interview podcast became a podcast about stories. It’s a unique research dissemination format that uncovers details and insights about the research and packages it up into an accessible audio file for listeners at any level of expertise with games research. Season 1 was all about discovering, establishing, and honing the format. Now that we have it down pat, Season 2 will venture out in more directions to see what else can be learned from centering the researcher as the focal point of the research story. Stay tuned.

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