Since 2012 a number of uWaterloo English graduate students have been overseeing First Person Scholar, an online game studies periodical they founded in conjunction with uWaterloo’s Games Institute (the director of which is English’s Dr. Neil Randall). According to the FPS website,
“First Person Scholar aims to occupy the niche between academic blogs and journals in establishing an informed, sustained conversation. Our articles are relatively short, thought-provoking pieces that are intended to stimulate debate on games and games scholarship. In that respect, our contributors are encouraged to take calculated risks with their submissions; we want to hear scholars think out loud about gaming in a way that challenges accepted definitions and practices. If journals document where games studies has gone, we are about where games studies is going. Interested in contributing?”
Steve Wilcox (who edits FPS with Michael Hancock, Kent Aardse, and Jason Hawreliak) agreed to talk about their experience founding, editing, and maintaining FPS.
JLH: Whose idea was this? Was this one of those laid-back “grad students hanging out conversations,” or was it more strategic?
SW: I think it was Jason who first suggested a games studies journal during one of Games Institute meetings. For a while the idea just lingered and then Michael and Kent formed the idea of a site for book reviews and game commentaries that tried to raise the level of discourse. From there it evolved, I believe, largely in response to sites like GameStudies.org, which has become a little slow for an online publication and slightly out of touch with the discipline. At the end of the day, we were brought together not just by what we wanted (which was more timely scholarship) but really what Games Studies needs: prompt, thoughtful responses to emergent issues.
JLH: How has the response been?
SW: Overall, very positive. We’ve connected with a wide group of people. Our site has been listed on a number of blog rolls, and we’re even on a course syllabus. We’ve received praise from everyone from established professors, to young scholars, to non-academics interested in the study of games. And—this is my favourite—we’ve been discussed as a site where not only readers but contributors can learn and develop their skills. That’s really important to me, that we provide some meaningful feedback to our contributors rather than acceptance or rejection.
JLH: What is your sense of your readership—I assume you are somewhat obsessively tracking stats on the site?
SW: I’m really bad at this—I check multiple times per day! In terms of numbers, we’ve averaged 1800/ month since December 2012. But even with that number it’s difficult to gauge how meaningful those visits are (are they passing through or returning visits? Are they skimming or getting down to the last line of every article?). Perhaps the best indication we’ve had of our reach is the responses we’ve had from the critics, scholars, and game developers discussed in the articles on our site. Sci-fi author John Scalzi tweeted his support for a piece he was mentioned in (which proceeded to crash the site given his legion of followers!). We’ve also tapped into ongoing scholarly discussions on academic message boards and connected with game developers as we discuss their creations. One of the many upsides of publishing on a weekly schedule is that we can tap into contemporary issues, which really fosters sustained (rather than protracted) debate.
I would also like to add that we have a number of very well connected, very learned young scholars that are ardent promoters of our site and we would be a shadow of the success that we are without their continued support.
JLH: Where do the majority of your submissions come from?
SW: At this point, mainly from within the University of Waterloo, and the Games Institute group specifically. In many ways FPS is a reflection of how diverse and insightful our group is. We have people coming from disability studies, rhetoric, literature, theatre, and e-lit all starting with the concept of play and games. In fact, that’s a large part of what we wanted to achieve: a Games Studies publication that wasn’t at risk of having games co-opted to serve the ends of another discipline. There’s a time and a place for that but there was also need for a site like FPS.
I think this is best illustrated by one of our few external submissions, Samantha Allen’s piece on in-game difficulty modes and discrimination (she expands upon Scalzi’s remarks that being a white male is like playing life on ‘Easy’). That article, for me, really illustrates the potential for games to take an experience (say, of being transgender in North America) and make it relatable through the familiar structures of a game. That’s a great example of how we can grow and connect with people outside of our discipline using concepts and mechanics that gamers intuitively understand. I would love to see more submissions of that nature, from people writing in different departments, with different backgrounds, coming together to really forward the field—because at times it seems like journals are about forwarding one’s career or the ‘correctness’ of one’s theory. Given that Games Studies is in its formative stages, I think we need to do a little more collective thinking on the nature of our discipline. But, truth be told, we’re still waiting for that influx of content.
JLH: What has surprised you about this?
SW: Probably the respect we’ve received (the online community has really had nothing but kind, encouraging words) and the recognition that a publication of this nature is a worthwhile pursuit. In a number of ways we’re trying to occupy a middle ground (between blogging and journals) that is difficult to justify. So I’ve been surprised by the number of people, professors included, that agree with the stance we’ve taken. However, these same supporters are also apprehensive about this ‘middle-state publication’ idea and for good reason. We’re at odds with what institutions value—peer-reviewed material in a respectable journal. But what I try to point out is that you’re going to get a better journal article if you actually consult with your peers in the formative stages. That’s where FPS comes in, as a site for calculated risks, as a test-bed for theories and concepts that frankly don’t belong in a journal. We want to capitalize on the speculation scholars do, which occurs well before the polished conclusions of a published journal article, and very likely as part of ongoing debates and issues.
JLH: Has it been difficult to keep up?
SW: At times. We are a team of four PhD students at various points in our degrees and we’ve managed an article a week since December 5th, 2012. But again, our peers in the department have really contributed to our success and of course the unending support of Neil Randall, who runs the Games Institute, has been invaluable. We also produce content for the site but ideally that will happen less and less as more submissions role in.
JLH: Have you seen concrete opportunities emerging for you out of this?
SW: I think this has certainly helped us—as editors—make connections with the larger community. We’re in the midst of a few conversations about how to evolve the ideals of FPS into other areas as well. But mainly I think—I hope, I should say—that we are creating opportunities for games scholars in general. Games Studies is, by and large, in a bit of a bubble at the moment. Games have commercial, critical, cultural, institutional, and political attention and with that comes funding and respect as a valuable pursuit. That bubble will, invariably, burst and we need to position ourselves in such a way that we are not on the outside looking in. This means we need to forge connections with universities (through initiatives like the Games Institute) but we also need to cement our role as necessary components of not only the reception of games but the creation as well. Non-academic jobs are becoming more and more the reality for PhD students and we need to accept that by demonstrating we games scholars have something to offer to researchers, developers, and business in general. Perhaps there is a future where a developer needs someone who knows the history and theory behind games. Part of FPS is demonstrating our potential above and beyond academia.