T. L. Taylor is professor of comparative media studies at MIT. She also cofounded and serves as director of research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing fair and inclusive e-sports. Trained in ethnography and sociology, T. L.’s original studies of online life and play have produced three monographs of fundamental importance not only for game studies generally but also for anyone interested in the histories of online play, e-sports, or game spectatorship: Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (2006), Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (2012), both from MIT Press, and Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton University Press, 2018). Henry Lowood interviewed Prof. Taylor on July 12, 2019.
Henry Lowood: You hold a professorship in comparative media studies, and you’ve written a series of books in game and media studies. The obvious first question must be how did you get where you are? How would you trace the path that led you through your career to where you are today?
T. L. Taylor: I think it’s very easy to retrospectively make it all seem linear and by choice or accomplishment and it’s not. [laughter] I would say I got here through a lot of luck, a lot of serendipity, and pretty much just kind of following my interests. Actually, I would add a fair amount of resource privilege that came through the institutions I got to spend time at. The game stuff really just comes out of my own interest in wanting to be online in the nineties to stay connected to people back in California when I moved to grad school. For a lot of us in grad school in the nineties that boom time for the internet was pretty exciting. I just got sucked in. I was captivated by everything from Usenet forums to MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons]. And so, the origins really go back to me wanting to be online and then just being curious about things along the way. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to just kind of follow my curiosities over the years. And those eventually led into games.
HL: Were there any key moments when you look back? Any experiences that you had that pushed you in a specific direction at that moment or made you think there was something you really needed to explore, even at the level of a program you needed to look into maybe for grad school or something like that?
TLT: My path to grad school was very random. I ended up at Brandeis because I did qualitative sociology as an undergrad and there were only a handful of schools that focused on that kind of method. Qualitative work was so resonant for me, but there were just a few programs to pick from. I didn’t visit the campus; I didn’t talk to professors beforehand. I went in pretty blind. When I got to grad school, I was not at all focused on technology. Though I’d played around a bit on bulletin board systems in the year between grad and undergrad, I didn’t have technology stuff at all on my radar. We didn’t have a computer in our home growing up. We didn’t have game consoles. My interest in tech and online stuff all developed from my grad school experience.
Initially, I thought as a grad student I was probably going to continue the work I had done as an undergrad in my thesis, which was looking at subculture and consumption practices amongst refugee youth. It had nothing to do with technology. I guess probably the first really important pivot moment was when I stumbled on all this internet stuff. I got into MUDs, those old multiuser, you know, text-based world dungeons, worlds. By chance I got to hear Sherry Turkle speak, and she talked about MUDs. I had been spending months kind of asking everybody I met if they knew about these things that I was experiencing, and nobody did. Hearing her present on them in an academic forum, then going up to her and basically saying “I’ve discovered these, too!” was a pretty important connection for me. It showed me I could think about this stuff academically. Grad school is when I also became exposed to STS [science and technology studies] as a field. That was hugely important because, you know, sociology has historically not actually been very good at dealing with tech. Finding STS and starting to go to 4S [Society for Social Studies of Science] conferences was huge. So much of my work is built around this intersection of the social and the technological. So even though I wasn’t in an STS department, being lucky enough to end up in the Boston area for grad school, to meet Sherry, to get connected to [the] STS community, those were pretty important early moments for me. My department didn’t really know what to do with me so finding that community outside of it was huge.
HL: You wrote an essay a few years ago called “In through the Back Door” for the readers. You wrote there, “In through the back door is how I’ve always felt about my academic path. I’ve been lucky to land on my feet,” which is part of what you’ve been talking about. Being lucky in finding people. “And I do mean to invoke luck very explicitly,” you wrote. “My life as an academic has always felt at least psychologically pretty precarious.”1 So what do you mean by that? What do you mean by being precarious or, risky, uncertain? Where’s that feeling?
TLT: Yeah. That’s a funny one, right, because, on the one hand, you know, there are so many junior folks now that experience deep precarity around our profession, in terms of making ends meet or getting a tenure-track job. And I suppose, in that regard, me talking about it feeling precarious—I hope that lands how it’s intended. For me, the precarity has been just—well, now I’m going to be inarticulate about it—but it’s the class baggage. It’s, you know, not fitting with academia, which often has middle-class values and sensibilities and forms of communication, not always having the same kinds of support or resources or background knowledge. I come from a working-class family. I was first in my family to go to college. So I got kind of perpetually lucky in just landing in good institutions, and I mean this very earnestly, by no intent of my own. In that essay you mention, I write about putting my community college experience on my CV, which I had left off for many, many years because I was kind of embarrassed and nervous about it. I recount ending up at UC Berkeley but having no clue that Berkeley was [laughter] a good school. A professor just told me to apply to it. I mean, I had a really lousy public-school education. In high school I was,—I forget if I write about this in that piece—sent to stenography classes and home economics. I was not college prepped. [laughter] I’m very undereducated in a lot of respects. I realized that when I got to MIT especially. I was like, holy cow, these kids are so much better educated than I am. So I think that has always been looming. I just always, you know, just felt not quite smart enough. I’ve always managed to have work—including a lot of odd jobs over the years!—but what I’m writing about there is a different kind of precarity, I guess.
HL: In this interview, we are partly talking to people who are thinking about careers like this. My background from what you have described is very similar to yours, very working class. And it still feels like that today. My cultural interests are different. Do you feel that way too?
TLT: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t know if that ever leaves. It’s one of the weirder things, right, because I have to acknowledge my privilege right now, my economic status—I’m not working class materially anymore. But my internal makeup is often still very anchored in that. It’s often the case that a lot of us who come from working-class or lower-middle-class families, you know, our families often are still very much that. So it’s a very present part of our lives. I really don’t know that it ever goes away. It’s interesting to hear you say that. I’ve heard that from other working-class academics as well. [laughter]
HL: It’s interesting that your research is focusing on things like games and e-sports, which I would connect with sports. If we were to think in terms something like high culture, low culture, they’re not really the high culture of academic life either. Has that been a problem for you at all?
TLT: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought about that but you’re absolutely right. It’s kind of funny. Sort of obvious now that you say it. I haven’t particularly craved respectability. I don’t know how to word that. I have been incredibly grateful to be able to study things that most people don’t care about. I think, for me, it’s probably one of my survival strategies. It helps with whatever fear that I’m kind of out of my element or a little bit over my head. Like if I’m off in a corner studying something that’s not getting a lot of attention, it feels much safer to me. There are parts of academia I really hate, and I hate the character traits they can provoke in me, you know, where you get greedy about a topic or you worry if you’re giving enough attention to your work or respected. I don’t like all that stuff. So for me, studying things off in a corner, it feels better. It feels like it doesn’t play into my worst personality traits. I don’t know if that even makes sense.
HL: This is resonating a lot with me. When I was in graduate school and thinking about my dissertation, I told my advisor at one point—my principal advisor—that I did not want to work on a topic that a lot of people had written about before. I wasn’t interested in commenting on other people’s work where everybody’s just sort of criticizing everybody else. I wanted to work on something that was just primary sources. And I was just going to work on things nobody had touched before. I never thought about it in the terms that you just talked about it. So that’s very interesting.
TLT: That’s fascinating.
HL: And yet the things you’ve written about have all ended up being then very at much at the center of a lot of discussion. You started out saying you wanted to go into these things that are a little off to the side, but then you end up being in the middle of what’s happening, right? Is that the way it felt to you?
TLT: Yeah, I know. That curve or that gap space is narrowing too quickly for me. I’m a little worried actually that I’m not going to be able to have another project that gives me that kind of breathing space to just do what I want and not have to have this [laughter] voice in my head. It’s kind of a funny thing. I’m curious if you have this experience as well. The other thing for me is part of that wanting to study something that there’s not a lot on is—I don’t want to be overly instrumental but I honestly don’t have a lot of patience for projects that are just endlessly circling around something. I feel like, “Okay, can we learn some new stuff, folks? Can we see this as a building endeavor and not just a rehash endeavor?” I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s a little snarky but …
HL: Maybe a nonsnarky way to put it is that it is more about creating new knowledge and information than critiquing the work of others. At least that’s how I would put it for myself. I don’t know if that’s the way you would put it.
TLT: You’re onto something with that. I feel like the constant rehashing or not building on the work of others, it’s just so indulgent. We’re so lucky to be able to get to study stuff. Really, this is what we’re going to waste that on?
HL: I was just rereading the introduction to the Twitch book,2 and it reads like you had this moment where you were seeing something on the screen and your curiosity was piqued. It didn’t seem like there was a master plan to working on that.
TLT: No, no, there never is.
HL: It happened to you again, right?
TLT: And, to be honest, at the end of every book, because I hate writing, I usually think, I am never doing this again. [laughter] There was no master plan. The live-streaming work was going to be one article.
HL: Your work over the last fifteen years or so has been pretty much organized around three major book projects and then a fourth book which was more about methodology, which we’ll talk about separately. It looks like you started by looking generally at virtual worlds. That led to a book on online games and online game culture. From that you, of course, did a book on e-sports and professionalization of gaming. I can see how that might have come out of some of the things that were happening with high-end players in World of Warcraft [WoW]. And then, of course, Twitch and streaming does have a connection to e-sports. So it seems like you have figured out how to move to different topics but have bridges between the things that you work on. Is that the way you see it? If you look back on your work, does it feel to you like you have worked in a sequence that makes sense?
TLT: Yeah. That’s exactly right. There is always this jumping-off point. And, in fact, one of the things I’ll always be a little bit frustrated about is I never turned my dissertation into a book because, at the time, I was working in a department that valued articles. So I was kind of attenuating myself that way, because my dissertation was not about EverQuest or MMOs [massively multiplayer online games]. It was on embodiment in virtual worlds. In fact, the EverQuest stuff comes from that original work. I had been doing all this work on embodiment in these virtual spaces and had started to hear people describe games that they were playing. They were moving into these game spaces. I started to play EverQuest as a distraction from finishing the dissertation and almost immediately saw these tendrils back into the social virtual world research. I don’t think it’s any skill on my part, but there’s always these weird little kernels that can then grow into other things or they develop in other ways. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. There is a kind of funny bridge that all of these projects have.
HL: Yeah, a little bit because of the sequence and also because of the way you write and the way, you, T.L. Taylor, not as the author but as you, are present in the books. Reading them is like going through your life in a way. At least your recreational and research lives. This is a good place to shift to methodology and focus on that. Because ROMchip is devoted to game histories, which we think of as plural, your work is incredibly valuable as historical documentation, as well as for interpretative readings of contemporary digital media. There is so much documentation in your books. You write about things that are happening in these spaces that otherwise, in many cases, aren’t really that well documented. Do you think of yourself as a historian at all?
TLT: I have to say it’s really gratifying to hear. It means a lot to me if you think I’m doing okay historical work because I don’t think of myself as a historian and certainly wasn’t trained as one. But I think history is so critical to understanding the contemporary. I can’t even imagine trying to tell a story of some moment without having the historical threads because they are just so interwoven. What does it look like to be trained as a historian?
HL: The two most important things are learning how to respect and work with documentation and context. You look at documents, sources, but you understand everything you’re looking at in the specific context. You don’t try to read it as somebody would in 2019. If it’s a document from 1995, you try to understand what it would have meant in 1995. What I was trying to say about your work is that you are creating sources through your contacts that you document and the stories that you tell based on interactions with people. Behind this, I think, is that there is a close connection between ethnography and history. I am sure that context is very important to you as well. And so the stories that you tell become important evidence about the history of virtual worlds and so on. Because so much of what happens in these spaces is performative—it’s not documented really—there is no other way to get to them other than what you’re bringing to the table. By the way, is ethnography the area of qualitative sociology that you originally worked in?
TLT: Yeah. I sometimes go back and forth on whether I would call particular projects ethnographies rather than just qualitative work. But, in terms of a core orienting sensibility and kind of a method that captures the things that I value, I would say ethnography is at the heart of that. And it’s funny because the way you describe history as context and documentation resonated.
Both of those are really important for me. The hard thing for me with history is that in every project, I can think of things where I thought surely these documents must be somewhere or somebody must know. But for whatever reason, I’ve never managed to track them down. I end up making these kind of partial conclusions—like this is going to have to be “good enough” history. And I always hate that. [laughter] But you’re so right that so much of game history is mythos. I really admire people like Carly Kocurek and Laine Nooney who I can see do the hard work of going into archives. I’ve never done that. It could be tremendous. But I do value trying to track down the threads and the stories. And, for me, it’s also very much about artifacts. Those do matter a lot to me for telling whatever the current story is.
HL: You said a couple of times that you have a very deep methodological preference for qualitative methods, ethnography being one of those. Can you talk about that some more? Where does that come from? Have you done any work that you would consider quantitative or are you vehemently qualitative?
TLT: The kinds of questions I’m most interested in tend to be best answered qualitatively. I tend to be pretty interested in practices and meaning-making and culture. And so I just think the questions I have tend to be best answered qualitatively. And probably where I would get critiqued by some other qualitative researchers is I still, especially in my written work, venture into normative judgments and claims. Like I will still say that I think something is wrong—I don’t quite use the word wrong but, you know, I make normative moves in my writing. That may be at times at odds with the sensibility of really wanting to take people’s words and practices as the core of the project. I still want to infuse a critical, ethical stance along the way with different topics. But ultimately I’m interested in how people on the ground in very mundane ways, through their practices and ways they organize themselves, and then through their meaning structures, are making sense of the world. The other thing I always love about ethnography—at least the kind of ethnography that resonates for me—is the right of refusal so that people can lock you out, they can shut you down, they can refuse the interview or your participation. I like that. I really value that move that you get with ethnography because it’s about a certain kind of vulnerability, you know. You are relatively clueless as a researcher at the start. You rely a lot on the good will and the knowledge of folks in the field. And they can refuse you; you might not be granted access. You might not get the interview you so desire. I like that part of it as well.
HL: You like it even though it means that you’re denied?
TLT: Yes. There have definitely been times that I’ve not gotten the interview I wanted. In fact, I have this piece I’ve never published. It’s called “Ethnography as Play,” and one section in it deals with the idea of failure in research and also the unknowable, that there are some things that will always elude you. I do think that’s good. I think it’s healthy. It feels like it’s a good corrective for me. Research is so much about capturing the field and trying to make it intelligible. You write it up and package it neatly. I don’t know. There’s something really nice conceptually about the field resisting you sometimes.
HL: There’s another question connected to that I’d like to ask. As a woman who is working with predominantly male game players, what has been your experience with them as the sources that you use? How receptive have they been to your work? Have there been refusals? Do you feel like it’s been more difficult for you or easier?
TLT: I write about it a little bit in the e-sports book.3 There have been times because I’m a woman, and an older one, that I am invisible in some sense. So I often get access to places I shouldn’t get access to. Like the number of times I have been [laughter] backstage or behind some threshold line where spectators aren’t supposed to be. I think it’s really not just because I am a woman but also a white woman. I get all the privileges that come with that. So sometimes it’s beneficial. While there are always things I don’t know while doing fieldwork, sometimes because of the belief that I’m even more clueless or don’t know about games at all, people will often speak more frankly to me or they’ll explain in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. They will speak openly around me. They don’t think I am a threat. So that’s all great.
The downside of the gender stuff is that I am also deeply clear that there are many informal settings that I never get access to. And that’s hard, I mean, for an ethnographer—for somebody like myself who really wants to feel like I understand something from the inside out in a deep way, knowing that there are really important parts of that life world experience that I will never have access to, that’s hard. That’s a bitter pill, but that’s what it is. I don’t know if you experienced this when you were at e-sports events, but, you know, a lot happens in e-sports before and after tournaments in the bars and in the hotel rooms and in those friendship groups and in the private channels, whether it’s Skype or whatever, and I was never going to get access. That was apparent to me at times. A handful of years ago I had a terrific graduate student at the time, a guy, and I took him to an event. I’d been doing e-sports research for over a decade at that point and knew lots of folks, but I could see how immediately he was being looked at and spoken to in a different way. He got “inside” so quickly. It was so interesting and painful at the same time because I immediately could see how he was treated differently just by virtue of being a white guy. Those can be bitter pills. On the other hand, I get other kinds of access. It is what it is. I can’t do much about it.
HL: This makes me think of other domains that probably have similar difficulties for research, like sports, for example. There are some very similar things there.
TLT: Absolutely. Yeah.
HL: Both age and gender, like you said, and you said it perfectly, that there’s some advantages to the situation but there certainly are disadvantages as well.
TLT: Yeah, absolutely.
HL: How receptive have players been to your takes on the games that they play? What kind of feedback have you received, not just when you’re talking to them as their subjects, but I’m sure you also have conversations in which you tell them about some of your conclusions.
TLT: Yeah, yeah.
HL: What has it generally been like to bring game studies or your writing to them?
TLT: With the MMO stuff, I would say that it’s kind of funny, because I feel like that book has probably had the most academic traction, but it’s probably the one that I got the least public feedback on. The e-sports book was a trip by comparison. Remember that work was before the current boom. And so it went out into the world, and what happened was that for a lot of the e-sports folks that I met or I knew along the way, that book became this strange legitimizing artifact. Some of them read it. I have actually made some really good connections since that book came out; people came up to me, often less so players than people who were working in the industry in different capacities, and said they had read it. For them it’s rarely anything new and often they don’t read the whole thing. I mean, it’s a boring academic book, so those people are not, for the most part, reading the whole book, but it was a legitimizing token. It was that somebody’s paying attention to this seriously and that’s great. One of my favorite instances is I remember interviewing a really young e-sports player years ago in Sweden. I ran into him a couple years ago and he remembered me. He had seen the book, and he had gone back to school in the interim and used it in a paper. So that was very unexpected. If those folks pick it up, that’s great, but I think rarely am I explaining things that they don’t know already, you know what I mean? Because of the kind of work I do, I think it’s more just that here is somebody legit paying attention to what they’re doing and that matters. And for e-sports, you know, that’s been huge—the desire for legitimacy has been so big over the years.
HL: If this is true—that you don’t say anything that they don’t already know, is it also true of the work that you’re doing—we’ll get to the details of this in a second—around inclusivity and gender? That’s something you feel like they sort of know?
TLT: That’s a good point. I think there are probably two areas where I make pretty strong, normative claims. One is around intellectual property and one is around gender and inclusivity. I think in both those domains, people often know what the big swath issues are. What they’re encountering is me making some arguments and taking a position about it. So that may be more novel. But I think sometimes I have a pretty radical idea about intellectual property in cocreative culture. A lot of the people I interview share some sense that things are not right now, but what I bring to the table is a different way of arguing it that they might not usually encounter. With the diversity and inclusion stuff, I think most people I talk to know there are problems. I think what may be the new thing for them is that I make some pretty strong declarations about how I think things should be fixed.
HL: Now that we’ve kind of moved into these topics, it’s time to talk about your interventions. I think it’s fair to say that this has been a characteristic of your research all the way through—that you have not just written about but also intervened in. I’m thinking back to your book about online worlds,4 that you wrote about surveillance modes in these high-level clans and WoW, I still remember how you used the phrase, “it gave you pause.” You were saying hey, there’s something going on here. And, you know, we need to think about this a little bit more. That was over a decade ago. And then, of course, intellectual property, which I’ll ask you to talk about in a second, and the work that you’ve done as codirector of AnyKey, which is around inclusivity in gaming culture. It’s clearly important to you to connect research and intervention. Why do you think it’s important to you and what kinds of impact do you think you can have as a scholar?
TLT: It’s interesting hearing you say that because I have to admit, in my head, the intervention work with AnyKey is my first foray into intervention. I feel like I am very willing—and not just willing but I can’t imagine doing otherwise—to make critical and normative judgments. I have no hesitation in saying how I think things should be, even while trying to be accountable to describing them as they are in a meaningful way. Prior to AnyKey, I have generally been really resistant to people trying to get academics, especially game academics, to come up with design implications. I hate that. I absolutely hate that. I feel you should do your work and it has validity on its own. And I’m not a designer. I’m never going to come up with design implications, but, like I say, I will never hesitate to make a critical statement [laughter] about how I think things should be.
HL: Let me give you another piece of evidence. Of course, you can still say I’m wrong. Another example of this is that you organized a conference around e-sports at the IT University in Copenhagen in 2010. There was a lot in there about mistakes that had been made, including the intellectual property stuff you mentioned. I remember we had a Machinima and the Law conference here at Stanford. There were people there from the game industry and machinima makers and all of that. You were talking passionately about cocreation and what you felt about its implications. Those aren’t things that I saw a lot of game researchers doing. I take your point—the implications for game design is something that’s been there all the time—but I see that as a different engagement, a very different engagement. So my take as somebody who is watching as kind of a fan, is that you have been intervening; maybe it has gradually morphed from observations, where you’re critical of gaming culture, like I mentioned earlier about super players and WoW. And then taking it one step further such as with conferences like the e-sports thing and then to explicit intervention with AnyKey. Does that sound like it might be right?
TLT: Yeah. By the way, that’s such a really generous point. I just hadn’t thought about it that way. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I am just—especially around the intellectual property stuff—I feel like I’m like Don Quixote. I am just like shouting into the wind on that IP stuff. I just feel like I will keep making the arguments but they have absolutely no traction. Maybe the AnyKey engagement just feels concrete in a different way, but it is absolutely true. AnyKey comes from that thing I’ve always had, which is, yeah, to speak my mind. To try, on the one hand, to describe and hold as meaningful the way things are, but also to say if I think there are better ways or if I think we should think about it differently, to hold those two things together. AnyKey is, I suppose, a culmination of that—or not a culmination, it is part of that grid. And again, I can’t imagine doing otherwise. Okay, on the one hand, it’s my judgments about things but I feel like my judgments are animated in part by the things I think I hear in the field. So when I hear a live streamer say, “Yeah, I know there are all these laws, but I am like a comedian; the platform is the stage, but I own the jokes.” That’s really powerful. So I feel like it’s my judgment but it’s often animated by the things in the field. It is the same with the diversity and inclusion stuff. When we hear women say, “Oh, I just thought harassment was part of the job.” I’m like, oh wow. Okay. [laughter] Okay. There are things that have to come critically from that. Let’s take that as meaningful. That is important data and now what do we do with it?
HL: Thank you for the compliment about the interview. One reason it’s really important to talk about the things that you have done and to highlight them is that some readers of the journal are maybe thinking about going into game studies. Or they are young scholars and should see that there is somebody who has acted on what maybe started as critical observations—critical in the scholarly sense, not the negative sense. You turned career accomplishment and all of the things that you’ve been able to do to gain credibility into a form of active engagement. People might think that going into a scholarly mode with grad school for five years and all is giving up on being able to do those interventions. It is important to see that no, you can move forward through a career and leverage what you’ve accomplished as a scholar to make a difference in the cultures that you investigated.
TLT: That’s a good point. I don’t know about you, how you think of your career, but I really think of an academic career as a marathon. You make the most of that thing that’s right in front of you that you’re trying to do and sometimes you get lucky and things build. AnyKey comes from the stars aligning a little bit with people I had met and then Intel had funding and Morgan Romine also being interested in working together. There was no master plan there. It was really just one foot in front of the other for this project or that next project and then somehow it kind of all came together.
HL: I don’t know how familiar people reading this interview are with your work or with either of the two things we have talked about—with the intellectual property side of what you’ve written about and advocated or with AnyKey. So could I get you to sort of summarize both of those topics?
TLT: There is a red thread running through all of my work going back to the EverQuest book. It is really just trying to evidence and make the case that game culture is cocreative culture. Formulations that understand games as singularly authored by developers and, therefore, that that is where the IP claims start and stop, are just incredibly insufficient. It does not match the reality on the ground. And that misalignment has stakes. It has conceptual stakes. I think it also has methodological stakes because—and now maybe this is a given, maybe saying this is not unusual anymore—just studying what is in the box or in the downloads is generally insufficient to understand play as it is lived. But intellectual property also has real stakes for everyday lives in terms of the culture being coproduced. You have worked long in that space as well; I have been inspired by the work you’ve done to trace out some of those flows and the processes and the practices people bring to creating these amazing, not just cultural products, but the practice of play. We need a better conceptual way of thinking about IP that doesn’t just revert to what the software articulates. That may be an argument whose time has passed because we all kind of get that now. When I teach that stuff now in class, my students are there before we start talking. Sometimes it feels like the law is really out of step.
In terms of AnyKey, it was launched because Intel had some money to put toward diversity and inclusion, and one of the ESL [Electronic Sports League] contacts I have known for many years approached me about it. He, Carmac [Michal Blicharz], was at the Copenhagen event you were also at and asked a very astute question about IP. It’s in the video.5 I don’t know if you remember him. He came to me and said, you know, Intel has this money and ESL, being one of their longtime partners, was in a good position to try for some. Did I think we could use some funding for something that would have both research and action arms? We both knew Morgan Romine and had long admired her work. So the three of us put this AnyKey thing together through the support of Intel to tackle diversity and inclusion in e-sports. The idea was just, let’s actually try to do things that are informed by research and evidence and robust conceptual models and not just, you know, spin up random things hoping that they might work.
HL: Workshops for people in the industry? Or what kinds of things have you been doing?
TLT: So you probably know Morgan founded the Frag Dolls. She has been in that e-sports space for a very long time. She is trained as a cultural anthropologist and has a PhD in anthropology from UC Irvine where she worked with Tom Boellstorff and others. She and I both felt that, you know, you don’t tackle diversity and inclusion by just like doing one thing. Historically, of course, it’s been “Let’s have a women’s tournament!” Then there is a women’s tournament and not much changes, then people wonder, “Oh gosh, why isn’t this solved?” Well, women’s tournaments aren’t going to be the thing to fix everything. So we’ve taken a multipronged approach in which we do a lot of different things. We do workshops, which are really private stakeholder workshops for particular topics. They are not for the public—they’re not for people to come and tweet and take selfies. We get people around the table and talk about hard issues. If we are lucky, we even get some industry competitors together to talk about them. So that is very private work. But then the idea was to take some findings from those workshops and spin them out in public-facing ways. So we created those white papers, and there are initiatives that we can spin off from that.
One very simple example is—one of the first workshops we did—we brought together a number of women who had actually been hanging in there and doing pretty well in the e-sports industry. We wanted to learn more about how they got there, how they were staying in. One of the things we learned is that the first time they went to an event when they saw a woman playing competitively or they saw a woman on the talent desk, it made them think, “Oh, I could do that.” There is this great quote from Billie Jean King which is something like, “you have to see it to be it.” Of course, you have to have more to be it, but you at least have to see it. So we had that conversation. We put that in a white paper.6 Next Morgan produced an amazing role model video series to highlight some women in the industry. Also, we continue to support women’s tournaments, and we do behind-the-scenes work to help promote and amplify women who are in the space so that, again, they can become role models. We just try to have this chain from what’s working, what’s not working; what can we expect, given that, you know, we’re researchers? What can be carried out into initiatives? A similar example would be a workshop on moderation issues. We had heard in an earlier workshop that Twitch chat is a real problem for getting and retaining women in the space. We had a workshop on that. We published a white paper.7 Morgan was on a panel at PAX [Penny Arcade Exposition]. Then last year we released a best practices guide to help people very practically.8 To teach them about moderation bots or tools in the platform they can use. Very basic things. So it’s like that, a kind of chain of activities.
HL: There is the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, where you went a few years ago. There has always been engagement with industry in different ways there. Did that give you a platform for doing the kinds of work that you’re talking about?
TLT: That’s true. That’s funny because, you know, I spent most of my career not at MIT. It was interesting to get here and realize that the institutional name has this travel power that I never anticipated. So it is a little bit strange. It absolutely helps externally to add it to a calling card. I probably don’t leverage it as much as I should or could but it can help.
But again, when it comes to improving diversity and inclusion, that is also a marathon. One of the hardest things is when you are working with industry partners, in corporate settings, their time frames are so different. I was going to say truncated. Their time frames are so much shorter than what I, as an academic, think about. That presents an interesting challenge because the longing for cultural change is what I’m in it for. We are not going to fix this problem quickly. So that is an interesting challenge.
HL: Well, it sounds like you will keep trying. One more question, then I’ll let you go. It is generally around mentorship and how you have worked with students over the years. In your training or my training, we were trained primarily in established disciplines that knew basically nothing about game studies. There was no scholarship in the field. I wonder if you agree that there is now a generation of graduate students who are going to graduate school and working with you because they identify themselves as someone who is going to be doing game studies in one way or another. First, just generally, can you talk about your approach to mentorship? Then in this moment of game studies now being a field, how are you steering your students? How are you orienting them? Are you trying to get them to be more engaged with traditional disciplines as a foundation, or do you think game studies stands on its own?
TLT: This is where I would say my path has been very unconventional for a traditional US academic. I was at NC State, North Carolina State University, for three years, but then I was in Copenhagen for nine at the IT University. That program was not a PhD mill. I had a handful of PhD students over the years that I worked with and who have since gone on to amazing work. Emma Witkowski is, for example, one of the best not just e-sports scholars but game scholars out there. Doug Wilson, one of your own former students, has gone on to have a vibrant design and teaching career. So there were a handful of people that I worked closely with, unlike American universities where you have massive numbers of students, a kind of overproduction. The ITU was only graduate education so it was master’s degree students and a handful of PhDs. The master’s students I taught changed over the years. When I first got there, there was a lot of space for critical cultural game studies. By the end of my time there, most of our master’s students just wanted to be game designers and were not particularly interested in noninstrumental stuff. There was much less of an appetite for critical, sociological stuff. At MIT, my department doesn’t have a PhD program, though I serve sometimes on outside committees. We have a very small master’s program, and most of those folks are not doing game studies. So right now, most of my teaching and attention goes to undergrads, which I’m really enjoying. That’s a different kind of work because it’s not about training people to be future scholars. It’s trying to help people think through critical issues that they are maybe going to encounter as they go out into the world and are working themselves.
It’s a funny time right now, because you’re exactly right. There’s a lot of people now who are in graduate school just doing game studies. I’m concerned because I do see a lot of folks who are not getting good supervision in the field. They have got faculty who are willing to take them on. Games are legitimate enough that they can study them and have them be their dissertation subject, but they often still don’t have faculty around them who are really embedded in that literature, in that scholarship. So I’m seeing junior scholars who almost don’t understand that game studies has now been around for, depending how you count it—what—almost two decades?
There is this whole body of early game studies work—often qualitative, often done by women with feminist frameworks—that is just not getting out. It’s not being picked up and developed from. I’m a little nervous about what’s happening right now.
HL: What would be the outcome that you would like to see? How would you like to see things pan out?
TLT: I would like to see a supervision chain in game studies where you have at least somebody on a person’s committee who understands the field in a deep, rich way. This is more than that it is legit to study games, but that there is actually meaningful depth and accountability to all the research that’s been done so far. I still see recreating the wheel or rehashing debates that are over, but also a lot of work that has been forgotten. I don’t know how to fix it—maybe it will take another generation of scholars to come up so people who specialize in games get the job and then supervise, but I don’t know. Do you sense this at all or do you not sense it?
HL: The general phenomenon you’re talking about I sense across all kinds of disciplines. Scholarship of thirty years ago that is missed. Some of that is perhaps a cut caused by the switch to relying on what’s available electronically and not always having that earlier work, even if it’s online, be as prominently available. Some of the research in print from the nineties doesn’t get picked up as an e-book, you know, or in the things that people look at. I’d like to share one anecdote with you. My son was doing his honors thesis as an undergrad at UC Irvine on German economic history, and he mentioned his topic to me. I told him, you know, I covered that in my dissertation. He said, “Oh really? How would I find that?” I was sitting at my computer and just did a search in his library catalogue and sent it to him. He admitted that he had not done that. He had never actually looked in the catalogue to check if maybe his father had some books in the library there. He was an undergraduate then, and I think there is a seismic shift that happened in the way people learn to do research that affects access, not so much to the nineteenth-century stuff, because those have already passed through the filters that determine what’s important generally, what people will have easy access to. But it’s that not-so-distant scholarship just before the big wave when everything was prepared to be available electronically. Every MIT Press book today is probably also available in digital form. I think that’s a big shift that has affected many disciplines.
TLT: That makes a lot of sense. That’s a smart analysis because it points to the structural thing. For me, it dovetails back to something we started with. I do have an impatience about recreating the wheel. Academic life—and I don’t know how to say this—is a luxury. It is such a luxury to get to study things. So if we are recreating the wheel, what a waste. [laughter] I do think it’s interesting what things get traction and linger and what things are, you know, forgotten. Qualitative work has a very funny relationship to game studies. The work of early feminist scholars has sort of fallen off the radar. That bums me out. This might be old person grumbling, but your analysis suggests there may be something structural happening.
HL: Was there anyone from those scholars you mentioned you want to give a little shout out to?
TLT: There was this amazing cohort. Women like Helen Kennedy, Mia Consalvo, Aphra Kerr, Jen Jenson, Suzanne de Castell, Diane Carr, Tanya Krzywinska, Lisbeth Klastrup, Susanna Tosca, Tracy Fullerton, Celia Pearce, and Mary Flanagan were all doing—and continue to do!—amazing rich work. When I read game studies now, I don’t see them present in ways that I think they should be. That work continues to have so much to say to contemporary game studies.
HL: Thank you, T. L.
TLT: What a gift to be able to reflect on one’s own career like this. Thank you so much, Henry.
1. ^ T. L. Taylor, “In through the Back Door,” The Tech, October 13, 2016, https://thetech.com/2016/10/12/in-through-the-back-door
2. ^ T. L. Taylor, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
3. ^ T. L. Taylor, Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
4. ^ T. L. Taylor, Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
5. ^ “E-Sports and Cyberathleticism: European edition (2010), Open Discussion,” IT University of Copenhagen, 2010, YouTube video, 1:00:19, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbrKeUJHboE.
6. ^ AnyKey, “Women in Esports,” white paper, 2015, https://anykey-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/AnyKey%20-%20Women%20in%20Esports%20Whitepaper%20(Oct%202015).pdf.
7. ^ AnyKey, “Barriers to Inclusion and Participation: The Role of Community Management and Moderation,” white paper, 2016, https://anykey-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/AnyKey%20-%20Barriers%20to%20Inclusion%20and%20Retention%20-%20The%20Role%20of%20Community%20Management%20and%20Moderation%20Whitepaper%20(Apr%202016).pdf.
8. ^ AnyKey, “Live Streaming Moderation Best Practices for Event Organizers,” 2018, https://anykey-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/AnyKey%20-%20Live%20Streaming%20Moderation%20Best%20Practices%20(Sept%202018).pdf.