he's deftly using D.Va's Defensive Matrix to stop a volley of missiles while citing Ian Bogost's latest book in her Twitch stream. When Alexandra Orlando isn't playing Overwatch, she is working towards a PhD at the University of Waterloo, studying gender and eSports. She is also the current EIC of First Person Scholar (FPS), a academic gaming discussion site that labels itself as “middle-state publishing.” Middle-state publishing is meant to be a bridge between academic work and games journalism. There, Orlando helps lead a team of Belmont-whip-smart writers to build upon previous academic work to create critical conversations on games. It's important to her and the site's founders that these discussions reach beyond the campus by trading traditional academic publishing for a blog's immediacy and visibility.
Since becoming EIC in September, she has helped the site to continue re-think how we critically discuss games through monthly podcast, video essays, Twitch streams, essays, interviews, and more. Beyond shepherding those features that existed before she became EIC, she's looking to expand the voices on the site by encouraging writers that don't have academic backgrounds. I got to email interview this busy games studies scholar to learn more about the site and how she critically plays.
Interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You've recently taken over as the site's EIC, how's that been going so far?
It's been busy! As a section head last year, I didn't really understand exactly how much work the EIC actually takes on, especially because so much of it is behind the scenes or with smaller groups. But, it's that good kind of busy, you know? It's an honor to hold this position.
From League of Legends to Cibele, there are so many game genres ripe for critical analysis. Is there a particular genre you gravitate towards?
There is always a new game that challenges my perception of that genre. Her Story was very much an example of that and since then, I've been paying a lot more attention to text-based narrative games. I'm always a big proponent for talking about games that don't nearly get enough love. I find fighting games are talked about very mechanically but outside of character representation, they don't get a lot of love in the cultural criticism world. Send me all the papers on Tekken and Dead or Alive story modes!
Alternatively, how difficult is it to critically play games that require moment-to-moment concentration like Overwatch?
It's extremely difficult to do both at the same time. There are so many times I actually have a notepad beside me as I play games. Other times, I have to take a while after a game to reflect on something I've experienced. I also often stream Overwatch which is another layer of distraction on top of it all. The other difficulty with critical criticism of games like Overwatch or League of Legends is that you need to spend a lot of time with them. It's not just about playing through a story mode and getting the full experience from that. For many people with a grad school schedule, it's just not possible to dedicate that much time to one game.
Why did you get into academic writing about games as opposed to traditional game criticism?
I'm from a literature/film background in school and I saw so many similarities with how we could talk about games in an academic context. My eyes were opened when I took an English class that combined literature, film, and game studies within a narrative context. I spent the whole class conflicted with which game series I wanted to write on for my final essay because I had thoughts about so many games! I actually didn't know games studies as a field was a thing till I was in my Masters program. And even then, I didn't dive into the text till the first year of my PhD. I never once thought games journalism could be a possibility for me, not for any particular reason.
When you play a game for the first time, are you critically playing it or trying to feel it out first?
I like to think I'm pretty good at turning my critical brain off --- something I practised a lot when I was working in film studies. In both cases, I think it's really difficult to pick up on everything the first time through and with games, I'm too focused on learning how to play the game first. That being said, if I see a game with really cool character designs or marketing strategies, I can begin being critical and writing before even playing the game.
Who are some academic game scholars that you are fond of?
T.L Taylor is a big role model for me. Not only because she wrote the book on eSports, but also due to her work in the industry. The work AnyKey is doing right now along with her involvement with streaming and the Twitch community is incredible and I would love to do that kind of work myself. Nick Taylor is another eSports scholar who's work with Collegiate eSports and local gaming tournament has also informed a lot of what I do. Their research is so much more involved. That's what I love about games scholars: being in the field, going to events and actually talking to people. It's something you do not see all the time with traditional English literature work. I've had the privilege of meeting both T.L and Nick last weekend at a conference and they were both friendly and extremely supportive.
Your site's middle-state publishing stance shares similarities to the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. Aside from democratising physical access to academic knowledge, your site is also keen on using language that is more accessible than traditional academic journals. Could you elaborate on that?
Making research accessible is only half the battle. If you can't understand what you're reading, then what's the point of having it at all? We encourage our writers to keep the general public in mind and not to assume that everyone is familiar with a certain theorist or concept. Changing the language of your writing can be difficult, especially for academics who have been entrenched in the style for decades. But for many other scholars, this is the kind of writing that feels more natural to them. Even for academics, game studies is still a new field and many wish to incorporate games into their work. I've attempted to learn a new field in a semester and let me tell you, it sure as Hell helps to have someone paring down the larger conversations.
Do you think Canadian post-secondary education is adequate enough when it comes to Games Studies?
There are very few games studies programs in Canada. Most games studies work is being done in other departments such as English, Sociology, Computer Science, Engineering etc. So, it can be a challenge for students working on game projects where there is little to no faculty support. We are very lucky at University of Waterloo to have The Games Institute and the IMMERSe network to get the support we need to do our projects but this is not the case country-wide. Our co-founder Steve Wilcox is now working at Laurier Brantford's in their new Game Design and Development program so I think institutions are catching on to the importance of games in post-secondary education.
What is your end goal as a games scholar?
This is a question I think about almost every day because I can see myself working within the academy or in the industry. All too often grad students default to an academic job because they don't know what else to do. And I won't kid myself, it is a great career path, but I like to look at all my options. I think all grad students have to figure out what exactly their values and priorities as a researcher in relation to their career path. I think there are all sorts of untapped potential that scholars have in this industry, but it's a matter of being able to communicate that to hiring committees. When I think "dream job", I think of working at somewhere like Twitch or Blizzard, but that could very well be a grass-is-greener frame of mind because I've been so immersed in the academic world.
[Editor's Note: The article has been updated to reflect that FPS has had a monthly podcast, video essays, Twitch streams before Orlando began]