[META] The Designer-Academic Problem

[META] The Designer-Academic Problem

Christy Dena

Christy Dena considers the unique version of subject-object relations confronted by people who straddle the line between game-designer and academic.

This ‘riposte’ does not directly address the subject matter of Jane McGonigal’s essay, ‘The Puppet Master Problem: Design for Real-World, Mission-Based Gaming’ in Second Person. Instead, this article is a rumination of one of the subtexts of McGonigal’s piece, a subtext that (to me) pervades some of the quotes McGonigal cites, informs her arguments, and is part of the context of her and others’ writings: the designer-academic problem. What is the designer-academic problem? Obviously, being a designer as well as an academic is not intrinsically a problem. Being a designer-academic does, however, present its own challenges, for designer-academics and their readers.


The challenges I explore here are part of conversations about game researchers and game designers, and larger conversations about practice and academia in general. An academic is rarely just a researcher (and educator). Some work in businesses, some run their own businesses, some create artworks, some are fans of artworks, and so on. Some researchers integrate what they create with their research, in practice-based or practice-led research. Nithikul Nimkulrat explains the differences between practice-based and practice-led research as follows: “Practice in practice-based research can be carried out freely for its own sake in order to produce artifacts. This is fairly similar to the general conception of art/design practice. On the contrary, practice in practice-led research is conscious exploration with the knowledge involved in the making of artifacts. Second, the difference is in the roles of practitioner and researcher. In practice-based research, the practitioner’s role may be more dominant than the researcher’s role. The emphasis seems to be on practice, since a practitioner-researcher carries out her research solely based on her own practice. In practice-led research, the two roles appear to be equally important, because research becomes an intertwined part of practice” (Nimkulrat 2007). Indeed, in the context of game studies, designer-academics Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern argue that building games facilitates different and important insights into games in general (Mateas and Stern 2005). Game studies, they explain, is essentially the search ‘to understand the form and structure of games’ (ibid.). This search is conducted primarily through the study of existing game forms and structures. Mateas and Stern argue that by relying on existing games, especially those created by commercial developers, it is difficult for game theorists ‘to imagine or theorize about potential game features outside of these design spaces’ (ibid.). Building games, on the other hand, ‘can play a key role in game studies’ in at least two ways:

Building games within already sampled regions of design space provides a more complete understanding of these regions, without relying on only what commercial game developers happen to provide. Building games that explore new regions of design space helps uncover game forms that commercial developers have not yet ventured into, and allows us to directly experiment with some of the more vexing questions in game studies, helping the field avoid making taxonomic and prescriptive errors. (ibid., original emphasis)

This iterative process for game theory echoes some of the philosophy of Phil Agre’s ‘critical technical practice’ (Agre 1997), a methodology that Mateas (among others) is an active proponent of. Critical Technical Practice (CTP), was introduced by Agre in 1997 in his discussion about method in the field of artificial intelligence: Computation and Human Experience (Agre 1997). Agre argues that technical practitioners are, like all of us, ‘products of places and times’ (ibid., 23), and so a necessary condition for the progress of technical work is a ‘critical self-awareness of technical practice’ (ibid.). The units of the analysis, however, are not the qualities of individuals, but discourses and practices.

A critical technical practice rethinks its own premises, revalues its own methods, and reconsiders its own concepts as a routine part of its daily work. It is concerned not with destruction but with reinvention. Its critical tools must be refined and focused: not hammers but scalpels, not a rubbishing of someone else but a hermeneutics and a dialectics of ourselves. (ibid., 24)

It is in the spirit of CTP that this rumination continues. Of course, this is not the first time that CTP has been appropriated for application outside of AI. Artist-teacher-theorist-curator Simon Penny has called for a CTP in ‘Digital Cultural Practices’ (Penny 2007). Penny differentiates DCP from CTP (sorry for the TLAs) by arguing that the function of Agre’s CTP is specifically engineered to correct a discipline with a long history behind it: artificial intelligence. Digital arts, Penny continues, needs a CTP for DCP, ‘in order to build a critical/theoretical apparatus adequate and appropriate to an emerging range of practices’ (ibid., 300). In particular, Penny argues that artists should question the technologies they utilize and the ideological foundations they were built on. Fundamental changes of habit are needed too, such as choosing technologies based on the task at hand, rather than adapting their tasks according to the technologies available. Do artists build it, or does it build the artist?

Both Agre and Penny share a concern with the development of technologies (and what is created with those technologies). In this article, the topic of concern is not the relationship between game designers and the technologies they employ, Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, for instance, are investigating the ‘base hardware and software systems that are the foundation of computational expression’ in their forthcoming series on Platform Studies. See link below. or a critical reflection on how one studies games through practice. Instead, this implementation of CTP reflects on some of the meta-communication challenges designer-academics face: how their insights are communicated and interpreted. These ruminations begin with a consideration of these issues in McGonigal’s essay, and then progress with general and at times personal reflections on the topic.

Perception & Application

All research is in some way an articulation of the world view of the researcher, but when we witness an articulation of a concept by a researcher who also enacts those insights, greater significance and ramifications are considered. In other words, the findings and framings offered by a designer-academic are interpreted differently than non-designer findings. This process is particularly evident in McGonigal’s essay, where she details the phenomenon of what she calls ‘power plays’:

Power plays are a kind of cross between a digital dare and street theater. They are live gaming events, conducted in public places and organized via digital network technologies, in which players are directed via clues to show up at a real-world location. Upon arrival, participants are given a set of instructions for an action to take at that site. […] The real-world missions of the power play challenge gamers to play in environments they wouldn’t normally play, to interact with strangers they wouldn’t typically acknowledge, to make spontaneous spectacles of themselves, and to rewrite the social rules of a given space in highly visible ways. (McGonigal 2006, 252)

Examples of power plays are flash mobs, the urban game McGonigal was lead writer and mission designer on: Go Game (Wink Back, Inc., 2002), and the alternate reality game McGonigal was co-lead designer on: I Love Bees (42 Entertainment, 2004). Another important characteristic of a ‘power play’ is that the ‘attention-seeking performances of the players are prompted and guided by an invisible creative team,’ which ‘are the first real-time, digital game designers, and they are called the puppet masters’ (ibid.). McGonigal then explains that ‘puppet master’ is a term introduced by ARG player Sean Michaels, which was adopted by more players, and then by ARG designers to acknowledge the players’ preferred jargon.

This is a tremendously important distinction. The source of the term ‘puppet master’ reveals its function: It is primarily a way for players to conceptualize and to talk about their relationship to the game designers. It is not a top-down description of the game designers’ ambitions or design strategies. Rather, it is a bottom-up expression of how the players choose to perceive, and to communicate to others, the novel power dynamic of the games they are playing. (ibid., 253)

This is where the difficulty of the designer-academic enters the picture. If ‘puppet master’ is a player-conceived power relationship, The term ‘puppet master,’ it should be noted, is not necessarily regarded anymore as a power dynamic. ARG player ‘Konamouse’ recently explained the history and current perception of the term: “The term Puppet Master harkens back to the start of ARGs when it was felt the game authors were “pulling the strings of the players” (so to speak). Over the years, we have just habitually used PMs as an all encompassing term referring to the folks behind the curtain. Of course they are interacting with the players - through their characters (or making themselves a character in telling the story). It’s a well established nomenclature and has nothing to do with elitism or otherwise” (Konamouse 2008). then why does McGonigal - a designer on many of the games she cites - also describe the genre of game as a ‘power play’? Is McGonigal describing the characteristics of the genre through the eyes of the players? Through the eyes of her own game design philosophy? Or through the eyes of an academic who believes the relationship between designers and players is such a power dynamic? The next question of course is: can a researcher, and a reader, distinguish these possible approaches? An insight into which approach people assume McGonigal is employing, is evident in the quotes of audience members McGonigal cites in her essay:

The first time I told this story at a lecture, an audience member challenged me: “You puppet masters must really get a kick out of manipulating these players to do whatever you want. That must be such a power trip.” (ibid., 260)

And another:

If you’re the puppet masters, what does that make the players? Your little puppets? - anonymous audience member at the Game Developers Conference lecture “I Love Bees: A Case Study” (McGonigal, 2005) (ibid., 253)

It is unclear how many academics and game designers there were in the audience of each of these lectures, but the thinking behind the response is obvious: that the employment of ‘power plays’ and ‘puppet master’ are not regarded by McGonigal’s audience as a passive employment of another’s terms, but as being congruent with her personal design philosophy. Indeed, the employment of the terms to both academic and designer audiences has merged their functions: the terms are descriptions of a phenomenon (academic) whilst also being descriptions (even directives) of a design philosophy (designer). McGonigal both observes and enacts power plays. Now, the important point to note here is that this may not be the situation, but it is how the use of terms in certain contexts affects the perception of their function.

The Academic’s Role in a Greater Ecology

Another area where challenges arise is what I provisionally describe as ‘influence.’ Specifically I’m referring to two separate but related issues: whether to include in their research the influence an academic’s activities may have on industry or beyond; and the effect their findings can potentially have on the object of study. While having an effect on society is not an intrinsically negative thing, and is actually impossible to avoid, the quandary I’m referring to is one of responsibility. Since I’m not privy to other academics’ quandaries (I hope to provoke some revelations though), I’ll cite an example from my own experience.

At the beginning of this year I published an essay on a phenomena I had observed in ‘alternate reality gaming’ a year or so ago (Dena 2008). The essay argued that the players of large-scale ARGs experience more player-created content than producer-created content. Reasons were put forward as to why this was occurring (including design issues). My concern in publishing these observations was that the insights, and the design issues discussed, may be taken by producers or even players, as items to be acted upon. While I most certainly use the insights in my design considerations, I apply the lessons in different ways to the ones that I feared may be undertaken. In particular, I was concerned that on the one hand producers may rely heavily on the actions that had emerged naturally, or that they would attempt to thwart or take back control of the emergent activity. Either way, my concern was that the publication of the insights would irretrievably change the phenomenon in ways I did not agree with. This is perhaps less of a designer-academic conflict, than one of taking responsibility for my own actions as an academic.

This experience, and others, poses another designer-academic issue: that of documenting your own influence. This notion first confronted me when I was studying the various influences on the current state of a particular practice. It occurred to me that perhaps those academics that are high-profile in industry – due to active blogging, industry presentations and consulting – should include themselves in their analysis of influences. It seems that, despite what science and art have contributed in terms of the impossibility of objectivity, too often academics study a phenomenon with little reflection about their own role in it. In some cases their influence may be posterior to their publications. In many cases however, academics are part of the ecology they so rigorously analyse, yet remain strangely invisible in their documentation of it.

Artists, Commerce & Academia

This brings us to questions of the role of academia in industry. There are many issues that could be discussed here, and so I will narrow the discussion to a revisiting of a theory about ‘expanded cinema’ artists in the 1960s: Roy Grundmann’s ‘emceeing’ (Grundmann 2004). In the late 1960s, the expanded cinema movement was characterised by artists who ‘experimented with cutting-edge technologies and tapped the synergetic potential of film, video, and computer generated images in synthesthetic multimedia spaces and practices’ (ibid., 48). Grundmann analysed three films in which artists John Whitney, Stan Vanderbeek and Andy Warhol describe the technologies they are experimenting with and proposed that they negotiated their struggles with new technologies and the necessity to champion the technologies for sponsors by creating a specific persona, the ‘master of ceremony,’ an ‘emcee.’

Each of the three films discussed below shows that it was the emcee persona that helped artists negotiate, among other things, the potentially compromising contradiction between vanguard artist and hired tester. In each case, announcing and explaining the new technology gives the artist the opportunity to also announce and explain his own body of work and, further, how this technology is helping his artistic growth. Emceeing his own product in close conjunction with the sponsor’s product eclipses the harsh difference in nature between artist and industry; the emcee performance glosses over the fact that the artist is really wearing two very different hats. […] The concept of artistic uniqueness, rather than becoming eclipsed or suffering a loss of prestige, becomes thereby transferred into a quasi-official public exchange: the artist receives gear that he, after learning how to use it, proceeds to test and endorse publicly, whereby his status as expert tester seemingly enhances rather than diminishes his reputation as great artist. (ibid., 49)

Although this dynamic is still in operation, what is perhaps worthy of mentioning in the context of contemporary game designer-academics is the number of designer-academics who give presentations to industry and are working on large-scale commercial projects. Rather than receive sponsorship to use technologies to create art, the contemporary designer-academic creates art within corporate-commissioned projects. Rather than have their reputations enhanced by emceeing technologies and their applications, contemporary designer-academics can enhance (or thwart?!) their reputations as designers by invoking theory.

Designer-Academics and Academic-Designers?

The choice of word order for ‘designer-academic’ as opposed to ‘academic-designer’ is not meant to indicate some perspective or hierarchy of skill. Rather, it is due to the fact that ‘academic-designer’ can (incorrectly) render ‘academic’ an adjective…and it sounds better.

Are there different types of designer-academics? When I commenced post-graduate study in a Creative Writing course, our lecturer warned us that some of us are readers who will enjoy studying creative writing, while some of us are writers who will enjoy studying creative writing. He was making the distinction between those who will develop their creative writing skills in an academic environment and those who will express their fandom in an academic and practice-oriented environment. So too, there have long been discussions about the various ways in which academic research and fandom interweave. Media theorist Matt Hills discusses some of these variations:

“Scholarly fans” (Lewis 2002, 47-52), fan-scholars, and scholar-fans can all be counted as different types of media fans. Scholarly fans, typically educated at least to degree level and likely to be “young (or not-so-young) professionals” (i.e. in white-collar jobs), use academic practices of evidence (referencing), rigour and systematicity in their explorations of a narrative universe, although generally without citing academic sources. They occupy the scriptural economy without fully reproducing academic norms of bibliographical citation. Fan-scholars, meanwhile, are fans versed in media studies who tactically appropriate academic sources and terminology as a way of articulating their fandom. And scholar-fans are self-identifying fans who are also professional academics. (Hills 2004)

Of the latter, media theorist Henry Jenkins also identifies with what he calls an ‘aca/fan’:

Textual Poachers and much of my subsequent work has been written from the perspective of an Aca/Fan – that is, a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic (hence the current, provisional title of this blog). The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I take it as a personal challenge to find a way to break cultural theory out of the academic bookstore ghetto and open up a larger space to talk about the media that matters to us from a consumer’s point of view. This philosophy has governed my various stabs at journalism and public advocacy and they are what are motivating me to develop a personal blog. (Jenkins 2007)

Various distinctions could also be made in the game studies and game design context: game designers, for instance, that draw on game studies research to inform their design; game designers that invoke game theory when articulating their practice without observing scholarly conventions; game designers that embark on scholarly research to interrogate issues of their practice; game theorists who embark on practice to illuminate their research; game theorists who draw on game designer insights to illuminate their theories; game theorists who articulate their fandom of games through academia…the list could go on and on. Indeed, Second Person includes a large range of these approaches. The question then is, do any of these distinctions matter? They don’t matter. But they do influence the study, design, experience and interpretation of game design and game research. Balancing the various needs and goals of the different approaches is a challenge to creators, whilst analyzing that balance is a challenge for critics.

The great thing about the research world is that you get to choose your environment, which consists in large measure of the members of your network. Of course, this also means choosing the topics you work on, the language you speak, the values you embrace, the dialogue you participate in, and so on. You choose the whole package. You make it. You build it. (Agre 1993)

I hope Jane doesn’t mind that I didn’t explore the subject of her carefully constructed essay. I also look forward to hearing her views on this interpretation of her essay and its greater context.

Link to Platform Studies


Agre, P. (2005 [1993]) Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students. [Online] Available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/887315/Networking-on-the-Network.

Agre, P. (1997) Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dena, C. (2008) ‘Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games’, in Henry Jenkins and Mark Deuze (Eds) special issue on ‘Convergence Culture’ in Convergence Journal: International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol 14, No 1, pp: 41-57.

Grundmann, R. (2004) ‘Masters of Ceremony: Media Demonstration as Performance in Three Instances of Expanded Cinema’, The Velvet Light Trap, Vol 54, pp: 48-64.

Hills, M. (2004) ‘Strategies, Tactics and the Question of un lieu propre: What/Where is “Media Theory”?’ Social Semiotics, Vol 14, No 2, pp: 133-149.

Jenkins, H. (2007) ‘Who the &%&# Is Henry Jenkins?’, HenryJenkins.org [Online] Available at: http://www.henryjenkins.org/aboutme.html.

Konamouse (2008) ‘Fucktinag!’, UnFiction Unforums, 22 Feb [Online] Available at: http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=487528#487528.

Lewis, J. (2002) “Absolute arse”? Academic versus audience reading formations of the Alien saga. M.A. Dissertation, Cardiff University. [Cited in Hills quote]

Mateas, M. and A. Stern (2005) ‘Build It to Understand It: Ludology Meets Narratology in Game Design Space’, Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views - Worlds in Play, 16-20 June, 2005. Vancouver, CA.

McGonigal, J. (2007) ‘The Puppet Master Problem: Design for Real-World, Mission-Based Gaming’ in P. Harrigan and N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds) Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, MA: MIT Press, pp: 251-263.

Nimkulrat, N. (2007) ‘The Role of Documentation in Practice-Led Research’, Journal of Research Practice, Volume 3, Issue 1, Article M6.

Penny, S. (2007) ‘Experience and Abstraction: the Arts and the Logic of Machines’, Proceedings of perthDAC 2007: the 7th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, 15-18 September, 2007. Perth: Curtin University of Technology, pp: 298-309.