Dr. Video Games: Reflections of a PhD Graduate

[cross-posted to CGP and markdangerchen.net]

After I defended (YouTube) and submitted (PDF) my dissertation, for a few weeks I’d been meaning to write some reflections on the whole PhD process. The problem is that I’m not sure where to start. The image I have in my mind when I think of the process or journey or whatever you want to call it is that of slow extrusion, like being dumped into a meat grinder by the giant named Academia who revels in slowly cranking away at your bones until you plop into a mixer bowl piled with the chunky grounds of previous scholars. But I figured that wasn’t necessarily a useful image for other students to have while they are trying to successfully navigate academic life.

So, instead, I thought maybe it’d be useful to just create a list of things you should know if you are interested or are now attempting to get a PhD related to games (lots of Wikipedia refs incoming!):

1. Games studies, games research, game theory, and game design are not the same things.

When I first got here, I was basically studying instructional design, most closely related to game design, i.e., the creation of game experiences for specific learning goals. After a few months of classwork, though, I played Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) and noticed that the developers modeled a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma into the game, which led me to study how game theory and social dilemma constructs could be modeled and tested in Neverwinter Nights (NWN). This was relatively fruitless since, after doing some pilot tests, I could see that the results weren’t ecologically valid because, as a lifelong gamer, I knew that player choices weren’t necessarily accounted for by these models of “rational” behavior. One of our participants, for example, decided to ignore the relatively famous game theory model Tragedy of the Commons that we put into our NWN module. Instead, he spent time attacking the chickens we placed in the module to help simulate farm life. He brought with him a wealth of experience with gaming tropes and assumed he could kill the chickens in our simulation. The fact that we flagged each mob in the module as unkillable surprised him, and his avatar soon succumbed to a pointy, clucky, feathery death.

At the same time, I was starting to play World of Warcraft (WoW) and seeing educational researchers starting to look at games and gaming practice (most notably, Jim Gee, Kurt Squire, and Constance Steinkuehler–all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison). These things led me to start looking at player dynamics, collaboration, and group expertise in WoW. But since there’s so little research out there on games-related stuff, whenever I read about games scholarship, I’d inevitably come across people who are doing games studies, which I see as more the humanistic side to games scholarship (e.g., stuff that Critical Gaming Project is really good at doing: looking at narrative, representation, ludic elements, etc. of games) and it took me a while to realize that there’s a difference between the majority of games studies (AKA video game theory (with a little nod toward game design theory)) and player studies (AKA games research). I think I’m officially ending my use of the term games research in favor of player research just to better disambiguate from games studies. (The “game theory” vs. “video game theory” problem can’t be avoided. 🙂 )

All this is to say, you can learn from my years of bumbling around and know right now that:

  • game theory = economics and mathematical modeling of “rational” behavior related to utility theory
  • (some) games studies = analyzing game elements, narratives, mechanics, representation, symbolic systems, etc. *and* parts of gaming culture as a cultural product with a certain language, etc.
  • player research nee games research = looking at player practice in specific settings to better understand how and why players do stuff and make meaning while playing
  • game design = stuff involved with actually making a game

But of course, almost immediately after seeing these categories, you’ll also see that they overlap in many ways and the boundaries are rather arbitrary and artificial. In fact, many people sort of hop between those four categories quite readily (cf., Ian Bogost). Maybe, I’m just exposing a limitation imposed by my brain’s need to categorize and create schemas in place for me to live a productive, happy life. LA LA LA Don’t destabilize my world view!

2. To be a successful graduate student, you have to make connections.

You have to be open to new ideas (and have your world view destabilized), and you have to be open to meeting new people. In fact, it’s highly beneficial to actively work on creating as many connections as you can. This is especially true if you’re interested in games-related scholarship at UW. At least for now. This is because there isn’t a huge push into games-related stuff coming from profs, and any movement coming from profs was made possible by the work of recent grad students (CGP, definitely, along with the FoldIt folks in computer science, and GASworks before either of those two existed). But you can still make significant contributions to scholarly work in games stuff provided you leverage the right network of people for support. Support, both social and academic, is probably the biggest factor preventing at-risk students from dropping out of degree programs. The thing is, the academic support you need might have to come from games people at other universities. If you like someone’s work, email him or her and let them know. Introduce yourself and your work, and ask that person a question that’ll further your research interests. Most people I’ve found are quite open to receiving these emails; many of them realize that the games community needs to stick together and support each other if we’re to legitimate our place in academia. I can’t highlight the importance of making connections enough. You get people thinking about your ideas for you and they may suggest further readings, helping you expand, rework, or ditch ideas that make no sense or that have already been covered by others. In fact, feel free to email me if you need someone to read drafts of papers, etc. I’d also like to get a regular table-top board games group going… 🙂

3. Very UW specific: when you advance to candidacy (assuming you have funding) you get a raise, so be sure to look into that.

If you don’t have funding… well that sucks. I’ve been there. Yeah. That sucks.

4. I found it very useful to use conference and paper deadlines as deadlines for the dissertation.

This assumes a significant amount of your dissertation writing overlaps with whatever it is you’re presenting and preparing for journals, of course. If not, maybe you ought to reconsider that. :p

5. You will be surprised at how much time is spent managing your committee.

The writing is not the hard part of the dissertation. Sure, it takes time, effort, and brain power; it takes careful attention to detail and rigorous research practices. But the actual *hard* part is dealing with other people, made more difficult when there’s a certain hierarchy to the power relationships with those people. It’s ideal to get people who can be advocates for you, can push you into thinking deeper about what you’re doing, etc. But even with powerful allies, you still sometimes have to manage their time and effort carefully. Scheduling meetings and getting them to read chapter drafts, etc… all that takes TIME. The last few months before your dissertation defense is a lot of waiting around, frankly, with sporadic bits of frantic activity as you receive feedback on chapters that need you to pull all-nighters so that you can incorporate them into a newer version that is sent out to the full committee in time for them to read before your defense. Everyone sort of knows what the ideal process looks like, but no one can actually do it, as far as I can tell, because we’re all so freaking busy with multiple projects. If a committee member needs prodding, you gotta do that prodding and assume/realize that they are not deliberately trying to jeopardize your career. They just suck, like all academics, at managing time.

So, for example, in my ideal world, I would give my full committee the whole dissertation draft about 2 or 3 weeks before my defense. 2 or 3 weeks before that, I’d give my reading committee (a subset of the whole) the draft so they could help me revise it before sending it on to the whole. 2 or 3 weeks before that I’d give it to my advisor. In other words:

  • first draft of diss to advisor about 8 weeks before defense (though ideally, you’d have shared chapter drafts with your advisor and/or other committee members during the months prior)
  • feedback from advisor about 6.5 weeks before defense
  • second draft of diss (based off of advisor feedback) to reading committee about 5.5 weeks before defense
  • feedback from reading committee about 3.5 weeks before defense
  • third draft of diss to full committee about 2.5 weeks before defense

If this schedule is followed, hopefully, you wouldn’t have very many revisions to do after the defense since most of the major revisions would have been covered already by your advisor and reading committee. What actually happened with me was more piecemeal, as my advisor and reading committee realistically had to block out smaller chunks of time from their busy schedules to read chapters rather than the whole thing in one go. The final chapter was read by my advisor just a little before my defense, forcing me to skip the reading committee portion of the schedule for that last chapter. This is not uncommon. And what this means is that final revisions are expected to take longer as you get the majority of your feedback during the defense. A careful look at a calendar suggests, then, that you should probably schedule your defense 2 to 3 weeks before the end of the quarter that you want to graduate, meaning your draft should be done (going by the original schedule) at about the beginning of the quarter. In other words: A whole quarter spent managing your committee with sporadic edits from you!

6. The last year of writing your dissertatoin, a lot of time–OMG1!!1 ALOTZ TIM3–is actually spent looking for a job.

The job search is pretty much what your fall quarter is devoted to. Try not to plan to do a lot of writing then.

7. You need to decompress every once in a while.

Luckily, you’re into games. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Dr. Video Games: Reflections of a PhD Graduate”

  1. Hey Mark,

    I’m a honours student at The University of Melbourne looking at Corporations in EVE Online, and I just wanted to ” If you like someone’s work, email him or her and let them know.”

    But in all seriousness, your blog is a great resource and I really appreciate you posting things like this and the videos of your defense on your blog. I can see them being an incredible resource that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I also found chapter 2 of your phd on communication, cooperation and camraderie to be really interesting.


  2. Mark,

    I sent you a long email earlier, hopefully you will have a chance to respond at some point. This is a completely brilliant, unique post on the subject, I have not seen any discussion like this online… so thank you. Now that you are done with your program at UW and consider yourself a post-doc still at UW, I wonder if you would ever consider adding to this original post with what you have found POST dissertation defense? You briefly mentioned a bit about funding, pay, etc. I am curious if you would comment (In your usual candid manner) about job openings, salaries, publishing / work expectations, and if you feel the whole process, overall, was worth it, etc.?



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