Game Studies: Indiegames Culture Research interview with Enrico Gandolfi

Enrico Gandolfi game culture researcher

Enrico Gandolfi, PhD and Associate Researcher at Kent State University, teacher and game culture researcher

The videogame as a fundamental element to analyze and understand some of the most characteristic phenomena of our times: here is the central concept of Videogiochi indipendenti tra cultura, comunicazione e partecipazione [“Independent videogames between culture, communication and participation”], the new book by one of the most interesting contemporary Italian researcher in the field of Game Studies, Enrico Gandolfi.

Observing dynamics of the videogame industry, the public and the various communities that animate this scene, the researcher has developed a methodology to identify their key elements.

The book, which will be released in the first weeks of March, will be published by the always interesting Ludologica (the first series of books dedicated to videogame studies in Italian, founded thirteen years ago by Matteo Bittanti and Gianni Canova for Edizioni Unicopoli) and will be added in an already rich and very stimulating catalog.

We contacted Enrico Gandolfi to ask information on the book and his opinion on some of the gaming scene’s aspects.

Your research mainly concerns videogames as cultural means. Could you tell the reasons behind this passion?

You have used the right word, “passion”!
Since I was a child, I found fascinating the meaning that videogames were able to communicate and transmit to everyone.

Moreover, I felt in love at first sight (I was 5 when I met Centurion: Defender of Rome, my baptism) with the social and imaginative halo generated by bits and pixels.

Centurion: Defender of Rome

Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990)

I remember the fantasies about possible and utopian expansions of my favorite games, the wait for Dungeon Keeper, Black and White and Operation Flashpoint, the surprise discovering masterpieces like Planescape: Torment and Ultima 7, the research of cult magazines like TGM The Games Machine, K and ZETA (etc.) looking for news, tips and contents; everything shared with my friends and classmates through militant discussions, passionate fights (yes, really) and endless group sessions of gaming.

Planescape: Torment (1999)

Planescape: Torment (1999) a role-playing game developed by Black Isle Studios

While I was individually involved in this terrific world, there was also an overall feeling of belonging. This community mood allowed me to develop a specific interest about the game culture as a living thing.

Nowadays it is probably something more widespread and taken for granted than in the past: on the one hand, we have won and our nostalgia is glaring in the current pop culture; on the other hand, the cultural path is in the middle and we have to face several steps as every kind of medium.

To sum up, I have always thought that digital games are something more, a cultural language that succeeds in feeding and connecting me to my own generation.
Furthermore, I increasingly understood that they were complex phenomena rather than delimited products: their meaning depends on so many factors and processes that every attempt to fix them turns out to be subjective.
Moreover, the institutional frames about games are still dynamic and flexible, without tangible standards.
Such a fluid and untouchable status makes them wonderful objects to explore, a sort of never ending challenge that requires a constant and critical awareness.

From a working point of view, growing up I found myself in the strange, wonderful, terrible and absurd reign of the academia, at first as Political Sciences initiate.
However, year after year I embraced the Game Studies realm for three reasons: the first was that the cultural explosion of the digital entertainment as confirmation of my inner beliefs; the second concerned the lack of attention to the game culture showed by social scholars and researchers (I believe that even now it is one of the most overlooked topics in the field); the third was a fool idea of freedom.
If you choose to study digital games, it is hard to find a job or a position in Italy (we have excellent researchers, but not an institutional presence able to guarantee a continuity); I graduated in Political Sciences and my PhD degree is in Sociology and in Cultural Studies, for instance.
Anyway, the strong point is that you are autonomous in setting your standards and research goals (you are usually the strange and weird guy of the group): during my doctoral track I have developed a grounded vision of the digital gaming meaning as result of multiple interactions between representation, production, consumption, power and identity, and I was free to do that.
Then it can happen that someone abroad notices and perhaps hires you: it is a matter of expertize but also of pure luck.

Actually, my academic approach walks coherently with my personal attitude toward games.
Sociology and similar perspectives give you a wonderful assemble of tools, concepts, frameworks and empirical methods to explore every kind of culture and to deal with innumerable actors and processes.
From a certain point of view, my research background has improved the focus of my passion consenting me to expand the visual (for example my PhD thesis was about the Nerd culture).
Moreover, in the right context you can make a difference: now I am working at the Research Center for educational technology of the Kent State University on games and learning, and such horizon is really unlimited.

Kent State University

Kent State University

You underlined one important fact. When our generation started playing videogames there were not so many studies about this topic as nowadays: from a personal point of view, how did you experienced this change?

I understood this change quite late, when I had to find a background for my MA thesis (on the semiotic boundaries in digital entertainment).
Before I believed that the academic scenario about videogames was fragmented and rhapsodic, without a specific direction.
Well, I was partially wrong: it was (and is) still fragmented but there are well-established directions and an impressive state of art.
At first it was amazing, a sort of bombardment of inputs from quite unknown disciplines that I had to handle.
Moreover, I rescued years of studies and researches in a few months also because I lacked in focus (my supervisor was amazing but new to the topic): a wonderful and crazy period.
Now I am more systematic and aware of my centres of gravity.
Indeed, the risk of such a multidisciplinary field is that it can result disorienting and frustrating if you have not a fixed perspective on it.

The point is that such change did not happen in our country yet: Italian Game Studies are still larval and looking for a structure, a systematization. It is not a matter of people (we have great scholars and wonderful initiatives every year) but of accountability and continuity.
Thus, I am looking forward to experiencing this switch also here.

The researchers in the Game Studies field are, as you pointed out, not so many. How would you describe your experience within this international network of experts?

Wonderful. The advantages of being a young discipline are many, from a generational connection to the energy based on the feeling “we are precursors!”.
It is a new horizon to conquer and there are neither academic securities nor knowledge certainties that can have the same importance in terms of engagement and motivation.

Abroad this is particularly true and improved by a different mentality: the sharing of information, the team-working as a source of inter-personal richness, and the curiosity concerning others’ work.
During my PhD abroad period in Finland, I had a chance to live such cornerstones in a continuous way and realize how this approach makes a difference in research.
It is a small and aware world that tries every day to understand the universe of digital entertainment, and building walls and hostilities would be foolish.

Finally yet importantly, international networks and institutions are both well established and quite autonomous and open-minded.
Consequently, the debates across the Games Studies community are dynamic, fresh and often brave in their deconstruction and propulsive intents.

You previously said your degree thesis was about Nerd culture. I’m really curious about this issue, so here’s my question: what is the culture of nerds? Is there any difference between this and “Nerd culture”?

I have explored the manner in which people use and reformulate the tag “nerd” in their life and representations.
I was fascinated by how a simple word can acquire so many meanings and uses in personal narratives and discursive practices.
Therefore, I have interviewed dozens of people (gatekeepers, authors, association leaders, etc.) of the cultural sectors usually connected to the nerd culture (RPG, Comics, Larps, Wargames, Boardgames, Sci-fi and Fantasy genres, etc.) in order to solve this mystery.

The results were interesting in their complexity. It is hard to outline a coherent nerd culture, leaving aside the prominence of game and imagination.
Instead, I found redundant strategies in linking this tag to personal identities, from the militant pride to a self-irony in order to overturn the prejudice.
Anyway, it is interesting that for the majority of the subjects videogames are now outside the nerd halo due to their popularity.
Digital entertainment seems to be unable to characterize this culture, differently from the past.
We are referring to a paradise lost actually, even if Kickstarter and the increasing attention to nostalgic rescues (a smart move by developers and producers indeed) are relatively changing this statement.

How and when did the concept of “Videogiochi indipendenti tra cultura, comunicazione e partecipazione” was born?

Videogiochi indipendenti tra cultura, comunicazione e partecipazione

“Videogiochi indipendenti tra cultura, comunicazione e partecipazione” book cover detail

The incubator process of the book was a sort of “slow epiphany”.
According to what said above, I am committed that the dynamics within the gamescapes around us are intriguing but with edges constantly in movement.
There are so many topics, themes and conflicts through and across the gaming discourse, and we can find so many actors involved in its formulation, from producers and journalists to opinion leaders and players (etc.).
I usually try to read and touch as best I can these interactions, and one fundamental side is the specialized press.

The web site is the most important name of the sector in Italy and for a social researcher it represents an inspiring landscape to explore.
Thus, when one year ago I fixed exactly the issues that I wanted to study, it was a sort of equation: I had a leading online space with thousands and thousands of articles and comments, the theoretical and empirical tools to comprehend it and many topics to investigate through this combination.
For example, the success of Kickstarter and its impact on the indie scene; the “authorialization” of designers like Markus Persson “Notch” and David Cage; the fall and the partial resurrection of the current Japanese industry and the Old School revival fostered by products like Dark Souls and so on.

Markus Alexej Persson Notch portrait

Markus Alexej Persson a.k.a. “Notch”

My intent was to give a real, concrete and living picture of these complex phenomena from and through the ground, mixing Game design, Sociology, Media Studies and Game Studies in a hybrid and captivating perspective.
It was a surprising journey because, as social researcher, you cannot oversee the answers of your research questions: people are always an outstanding mystery.
I have discovered an unexpected variety of tactics, strategies and patterns among gatekeepers and users, and a strong vitality in their interactions.
The book aims to share these achievements following a concrete and systematic approach, without truisms and useless abstractions.

I agree with you, videogames (along with many other “new media” topics) have to be studied from several points of view precisely because they involve a lot of dynamics. It’s hard to focus on one side without explaining other aspects. Do you think we’re still in a germinal phase regarding the theoretical study of gaming?

It is a good question. Yes, digital games are particularly complex texts that require a multidisciplinary lens; it is hard to be satisfied using a unique grammar.

Unsurprisingly due to the rise of the medium, the Game Studies field grew up around its object of study rather than from a coherent perspective.
It is not a case that now it can be pictured as a sort of crossroad of disciplines.
I think that there are some structured ways like Psychology and Design (I am keeping the metaphor) and at the same times rough roads like Sociology and Anthropology.

Anyway, I think that we are still in a germinal phase concerning the multidisciplinary cohesion in terms of research outputs.
Game scholars are usually curious and assertive about new backgrounds and traditions, but concretely it is hard to find hybrid works in research, and it is bad because videogames need a wide visual.
Anyway, I think it is only a matter of time.

Kickstarter and crowdfunding platforms seem to challenge what we know about the capitalist process of production (for example, developers make visible all the production steps instead of hiding it). What are the consequences of this dynamic within contemporary videogame scene?

I strongly believe that this one of the most important topics in the current game discourse; the third chapter of the book is about crowdfunding and alternative production chains exactly for this reason.
Kickstarter embodies important instances of resistance, creativity and independence and the entire industry was affected by its success.

Developing your point, the transparency in the development phase is now a spread promotional strategy also for this influence.
Personally, I was a proud backer of some great games on Kickstarter like Wasteland 2 and FTL: Faster Than Light.

FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)

Anyway, I think that its status is rapidly changing.
Old legends and nostalgic brands are leading the scene and also recognized designers try to exploit the potential of this platform.
In my study, I noticed that these big names and their “nostalgic capital” monopolize the users’ attention and eclipse the real independents.
Moreover, the importance of the past in terms of consumption and hype that Kickstarter has underlined is becoming an AAA trend (think about the return of historical IPs like Syndicate and the innumerable new editions of masterpieces like Grim Fandango and Resident Evil).

In a word, I think that the game industry is succeeding in emulating and taking advantage of this revolution and that we must be conscious of that and avoid easy optimisms.
However, at the same time we have to remember that it is only the beginning.

Could you describe the structure of the book?

The book is articulated in seven chapters plus conclusions.
The first two introduce the theoretical and empirical frameworks adopted during the research, whereas the others focus on the results concerning specific arguments of the game culture.

As said above, the third is about Kickstarter and its ongoing transformation analyzing games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues.

The fourth retraces the story of the game designer Markus Persson “Notch” and the phenomenon of Minecraft as a borderline evolution from indie to non-indie status.

Minecraft’s Hand Island

Minecraft (2009)

The fifth regards David Cage and his efforts to revitalize the industry with Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls taking into account elements of an external medium (movies).

In the sixth, I have dealt with the “strange case” of the Japanese game industry, from revivals (Dragon’s Crown) to experiments (Wonderful 101), without forgetting popular brands (Pokémon).

In the end, the seventh explores the return of the “old school” (in a word, difficult) gameplay, emerged in different genres; I have studied the debates around Dark Souls 2, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Europa Universalis IV.

Dark Souls (2011)

Dark Souls (2011)

Although in every chapter I suggest an interpretative tool for each topic, the real protagonists of the book are the journalists and the users of
Concepts, judgments and terms like “independent”, “artistic”, “internal/external to the medium” and “narration VS gameplay” (etc.) are scientifically collected from the bottom and analyzed in their generation and development.

Indeed, my overall intent is to give the reader a living picture of the Italian game culture (or at least of a significant part of it) without useless abstractions or forced connections.

Do you think that you have to play games in order to write, read and study about them? Playing videogames isn’t the same experience as watching movies or reading books, you’ve a more active role as user. What’s your opinion?

You have to play. You have to know, live, smell what you are studying.
From this perspective, I think that videogames are not different from other types of media: they require passion.
Maybe, they are more laborious; surely, they are more complex.
However, the attitude does not change.

The world, academic as well as mainstream, is full of people who talk and claim about things that they don’t know; I call them “arrogant muggles” (just to maintain my nerd coherence) [muggles are not magicians in the Harry Potter’s universe].
We have to fight against such terrible custom, playing and loving our work; because, actually, they don’t.

How would you describe Italian game culture (I mean all the actors, such as indie developers, public, journalists, etc.)? What future developments do you think will come in next years?

I am optimistic about our game culture, that anyway is not so young as we can think.
We have wonderful developers who create beauty despite the overpowering economic and systemic limits (from Mangatar to Studio Evil, from Storm in a Teacup to Santa Ragione, from Spin Vector to Artematica, etc.), active actors like AESVI, E-Ludo and Neoludica that fight everyday institutional and cultural battles, and a strong and consolidated community of intellectuals and gamers (the research on which the book is based confirms this point) that increases every day toward new audiences, targets, and social and shared representations.

As said before, our problems are structural and depend on the lack of attention by the Government and, above all, private sponsors.
However, once again, it is a matter of time: the market is a glaring force that wipes out reactionary positions, the rest is already here or will follow.

A focused education is slowly rising also in unexpected environments (I am co-responsible of a forthcoming master on Game Design and Management at the Luiss “Guido Carli” University of Rome, the academic articulation of the leading industrial association in Italy, Confindustria), the mainstream attention is now more conscious, the generational trends are by our side: the evidence of the Digital Entertainment as cornerstone of the current popular culture is undoubtedly here.

Now, we are in the “loading phase” in its ending…and we are ready to play.

Luiss Guido Carli University of Rome

Luiss “Guido Carli” University of Rome

We invite you to visit the website of Ludologica (web site in Italian) to find out information about the book by Enrico Gandolfi, reminding you that will be in bookstores in the first weeks of March 2015.

Now we are finalizing Textural Videogames, our forthcoming publication about the theme of Playing The Game 2014, the event we held in the spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca at the opening of Milan Games Week.

We promises you a spring full of must-see events and initiatives that we are organizing in various cities. So, stay tuned and sign‑up on our newsletter!