4/28/2009

Under the Idea Tree

In which I want to avoid becoming a video-games scholar.


The biggest thing to happen in my media experience this year has been the acquisition of a video-game console, a Nintendo Wii, on February 12th. This is the first console I have ever owned. I wanted an Atari in the early 80s but my parents wouldn’t get me one. Of course, I played lots of games at the homes of friends and family, and had some handheld games as well. (Digital Derby, and a pinball game whose name I can’t remember, were two I played a lot.) In the early 80s I used to walk to a convenience store in the neighborhood with friends or with my brother to play Tron, Ms. Pac-Man, Tempest, and pinball, and later we used to go to a place on Bathurst St. near Wilson called Video Invasion for birthday parties.


I used to understand Tempest.

By the time I was university-age, I had pretty much lost interest in most gaming but I did like to play Ms. Pac and Pole Position for old time’s sake at the arcade near my Montreal apartment called the Palais d’Amusements, where my roommate Mark bought hash and played pool with a small-time dope dealer named Claudio.


I wished I could be Ricky Schroeder so that I would live in a house with arcade games.


There was that one undergrad semester when I played too much Tetris on my PC (a 286 IBM clone) and dreamed of falling shapes set to Russian music, but I deleted it from my hard drive before the full extent of academic damage could be done. If very casual games count, I guess I too have wasted a few dozen hours now and then with Windows’ Minesweeper and Solitaire and Facebook’s Scrabulous. I once played a GTA game for an hour or two at Jason’s house, and more recently I’ve played a few rounds of Guitar Hero with my brother-in-law. And this was pretty much the extent of my experience as a gamer until February 12, 2009.


Sweet emotion! (not the author, obvs)

For the past week, all I have really wanted to do is play Mario Kart Wii, a driving game featuring the most popular characters in the history of electronic gaming. Part of my interest in the Wii in general, and in Mario Kart in particular, is how well suited it is to family play. Our five year-old son, Leo, is the house champion in bowling and he is improving at Mario Kart, though to do really well he has to sit on my lap and let me help steer. Like watching football and American Idol, we get a huge value added from playing games with Leo, amused by his strong reactions and emotional investment. He dances to the songs he likes on Idol and gives his own judgments of performances before Randy et al. give theirs. Now he is building racetracks out of Hot Wheels and Thomas train gear on the living room floor to mimic the ones he sees in Mario Kart. His play is our delight.


Mario drives a Kart

But my more intense motivation is to master the game, which requires discovering all of its intricacies and possibilities. This would appear to demand patient dedication over many weeks of regular play. This is quite a personal endeavor, and while I love to play socially, I might get even more out of the solitary pursuit of advancement through the various courses and levels and characters which define the experience of Mario Kart.


Wheel by steveyb on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

I also feel motivated to understand the game, the console, and the wider context of gaming not just as an ordinary player but also as a media scholar. I know a bit about games already from having taught video-game-related topics in various capacities as a quick-learn non-expert. I have to do this all the time in my teaching, as when I cover topics like media effects theories and the history of advertising. Much of my experience of teaching undergrads has been one of keeping a week or two ahead and hoping nobody notices the gaps in my knowledge.

But now I worry that I might want to become a scholar of games. Mario, for instance, seems like a perfect topic for in-depth research on media franchising, global flows of capital and content, game texts as narratives, and the history of game design. I think, someone ought to study that! Maybe someone has? I don’t know, but now I sort of want to.


Yeah, on a t-shirt.


Which brings me to the title of this post. Where do our ideas come from? I don’t mean just any ideas, but the ones we use in writing about film, television, video-games, websites, and whatever we study. Do they come from sitting under the idea tree and waiting for the fruit to fall? If not, then how do we select topics we want to research and know more about? In what ways is this systematic, organized, and logical, and to what extent do we simply follow our capricious trails of interests? Of course, this activity is bounded by social and scholarly conventions. I have to address topics I believe will interest the community of scholars, that will impress my colleagues and those who determine my tenure, etc. But whether I study American movies or television shows or Japanese video-games would seem to be largely up to me.


If I were a real gamer, I would know why this is funny.

My experience as a scholar until now has been marked by some shifts in my areas of interest. My PhD dissertation and the book I have been adapting from it are about American independent cinema. Since my dissertation I have written about prime-time television serials, web video series, the history of the concept of an “attention span” as it relates to American media, the cultural legitimation of television during the era of media convergence, and BitTorrent as a way of watching movies and TV. These topics were all products of specific experiences in my life. In some sense, then, my interests are dictated by my interests.


Pole Position was the last driving game I played regularly. I sucked at it.

I wanted to write about indie cinema because the films I was interested in analyzing had been important to me. I worked in an art house theater as a teenager, and after university I spent a lot of time at the Angelika and Lincoln Square theaters in NYC watching new American films. Movies like sex, lies, and videotape, Do the Right Thing, Reservoir Dogs, and Night On Earth made a big impression on me. They were a significant formative part of my life.

My interest in TV came from being married to a television scholar, but even more than that, I think, from being the parent of a young child. I was Leo’s primary caregiver during half of the working week when he very little, and I started recording shows to watch while he was playing in the living room late in the mornings when he was too young to care what was on screen. I watched the entire run of Judging Amy this way (except the final season) on cable reruns, which got me interested in studying the form of serialized television narratives. I suppose I could have been watching movies, but that regular installment of my favorite show filled that time especially well, developing into a habit. And I have always preferred to watch TV shows on TV and movies in theaters.


If we got these Tetris shelves, would my dreams of falling shapes return?

I have a story for each of my projects to explain where idea originally came from. They generally came from specific life experiences. Watching Sesame Street with Leo was part of what got me interested in the history of the attention span. The present phase of my life, being the parent of a five-year-old child, might push me in the direction of studying gaming. Part of me hopes it does not; I need to keep working on the projects I have already begun and I don’t feel like I have room for new ideas at the moment. It would take a while to read enough and play enough to feel competent to write about games. Sometimes the most exciting part of a research project is the initial enthusiasm of discovery, and this can make it appealing to launch into new areas of interest without recognizing the time commitment that will be involved. It’s dangerous under the idea tree, but the ubiquity of media makes it hard to find anyplace else to sit.


A Mario cake for your next birthday?

3 comments:

TeeVee said...

Interesting post. Yeah, our ideas definitely come from what we're interacting with at the moment. I love video games, but I know I have to choose between a gaming console and my career! :(

John Vanderhoef said...

If nothing else, you can just simmer those ideas on the back burner while finishing up your current projects and getting better acquainted with gaming. Interesting post. Even within a certain medium, though, there's so many directions to take that I find myself often either exhausted at the possibilities or disappointed I chose one area of interest over another.

Jason Mittell said...

Great post, and congrats on the Wii! I think another important facet about how we find academic interests stems from the limits and possibilities of our locales. If you're near a great archive, in-depth history is possible and exciting; if you're living in rural Vermont (for instance), your research skews toward the accessible realm of contemporary TV.

There's a mystique that academic research is motivated by deep introspection and inspiration. I've found it's much more based on happenstance and pragmatics, and it's important to demystify it.