Tag Archives: study

The Finish Line Is Back There a Bit

I submitted my PhD thesis the other day.

This is a rather excellent development.

I think I’m happy with how it turned out. Though, of course, I’m not really willing to re-open it and check just yet. I’ll wait and see what the examiners say, and in the meantime, I will try to recover from the final stretch. I took six weeks off work to finish the thesis—a time period in which I took about three days off thesis work, not including the time I spent preparing and presenting a paper at the Games Research Methods Symposium at Sydney Uni (a really interesting conference, but from a timing perspective it wasn’t my greatest decision). I worked myself beyond exhaustion, lost track of the day several times, and still had to make compromises on several aspects and processes. I had to avoid Twitter to keep my mental health above water. I had to employ several fine-toothed combs, including one to remove spaces around em-dashes (a bad habit), one to ensure the use of Oxford commas (easy things to miss, it turns out), and one to switch out the singular ‘they’ (a good habit, but a PhD thesis isn’t the time to fight that battle). EndNote caused a day of intense frustration when it started changing citations of its own volition. And while most aspects of the formatting style I’d previously used for my honours thesis could be re-used to save trouble, I did have to switch the font in the end. But all told, I think it turned out well.

My initial plan, going into this PhD, was to study the intersection of thematic and gameplay genres. However, I soon found semiotics to be a more interesting and less well-trod path. My thesis ended up being a very substantial development of the work I started in my “Meaningful Play” article: a semiotic framework capable of analysing the initial composition and interactive configuration of game music separately (because there are some quite different processes going on in each). I was quite impressed by the idea of the player’s authorship of their experience—a concept which is not new in studies of games, but which had yet to be fully applied to game music, and which gets really interesting when comparing gameplay to other forms of play. With the exception of some work on Microsoft Flight, all of the analysis and writing I’ve done over the last five and a half years has made it into the thesis in some way. However, there are several avenues of investigation that came up during my study that I didn’t have time or space to pursue. I dropped four potential chapters, and still nearly hit my word limit.

In between afternoon naps, I’ve been trying to think of things to do with my reacquired freedom. I’m presenting a conference paper in December, but I’ve decided not to do any academic work until September to give myself a break. I’ve been reading for leisure again, which is nice. I’ve got time for photography, including astro and analogue. And there’s a mountain of unplayed games in my Steam library to play through. But I’ve also completed my strategy of encouraging thesis progress through self-bribery. I found that I was much more likely to write when I set myself goals with tangible rewards, and for the ultimate reward I decided to aim for a MIDI controller. I’ve been itching to make music, to play some piano, and even to compose. So I’ve bought a device with plenty of scope for productivity and experimentation, and am having quite a lot of fun playing around with music again. I might even try my hand at making some game music—coming at my object of study from the other direction, as it were.

Anyway, thanks for reading up to this point. I plan to keep writing (who knows? I might even do so more frequently), because games and music are excellent things. Somehow, writing my thesis hasn’t crippled my ability to enjoy either. I think that must be some kind of miracle.

Literally a Long, Long Time

Last night I finished the first complete draft of the literature review chapter of my thesis. It’s 10,455 words long, and according to my versioning system it’s the 20th draft file. The first draft file is dated 26 August 2014.

Writing a literature review is an interesting exercise. In my experience at least, there’s not a great deal of official information out there about what a literature review is, or what it should contain. I’ve found it a constant challenge to find out what’s required of me throughout this PhD adventure (pro tip: try not to be left off the mailing list when you start a new degree), but even accounting for that there’s a dearth of information on literature review formats or expectations. Perhaps it’s the relatively self-explanatory title of the concept. “A literature review is… a review… of the literature…? Duh.”

Anyway, early on I was dreading the thought of the anomalous excercise of writing the lit review. And when I started, I kept getting hung up on it. So many times I’d start doing work on it, then flounder so completely that work on the whole thesis would stagnate. This is my excuse for the chapter taking almost three years to complete. Three to four years is the regular timeframe for a full-time PhD in Australia, and while I’ve been part-time since early 2015 this chapter has still been an excruciatingly long endeavour. When something is repeatedly difficult, it becomes difficult to even pick up your work on it, let alone to get it finished.

Something changed this year, though. Or started to change last year. I took some time off work mid-2016 so that I could get deeper into the study mindset for a while, and wrote 20,000 words in a month. So, I did it again late-2016 and it didn’t work quite so well (not sure why). I tried it again over Easter and got sick twice in two weeks, the frustration of which seems to have extended my fervour for thesis work beyond the typical pattern (finally!). But something that did happen in these attempts was that for some bizarre reason I was kind of having fun.* There is an art to collecting, collating, and presenting information concisely. It requires a certain amount of creativity to determine what to include, how to include it, and how to relate it to everything else that’s included. Ludomusicological semiotics draws on a lot of fields — semiotics, musicology and game studies at the very least. The process of diving into each of these fields, threshing the salient points from the gritty details, weaving them into a coherent representation within 2,000 words or so, then dashing on to do the same thing for another entire body of work, is kind of a rush when it’s done at the pace of the final stages of a PhD.

But I think I also just enjoyed seeing a snapshot of the full context of my work. In a young field, it’s easy to feel as though you need to justify your choice of study before you can even discuss it. Reviewing the literature gave me a perspective on my work that relates it not only to the ludomusicological literature of the last decade and a half, but to the literature of several well-established fields that go back much further. The most encouraging part of that is to see that my work is not an outlandish endeavour; similar things have been done before, in similar ways and for similar reasons.

But, said work is not finished yet. There’s still a fair bit to do before my submission date (early August), and I’ve no doubt it will not be fun. Bloggings may well be as sparse as they have been lately. But hey, the end is now certainly in sight, and there’s one less seemingly insurmountable hurdle in the way.


*This statement is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written.

Satisfaction in abstraction

I’m increasingly aware of a preference I have for the study of abstractions. In its current form, this is manifesting as an enjoyment of musical semiotics, which I’ve been studying for thesis and prospective article purposes. This isn’t a new thing for me, I think. When I started to find undergraduate physics too hard because I’d forgotten how to do integral calculus in the year between school and uni, I majored in pure mathematics instead. I’ve always found the application of mathematical models to real-life situations a bit challenging; on the other hand, algebra for algebra’s sake is satisfying, pure geometry or topology fascinates me, and set theory permeates my thinking about anything quantifiable.

Musical semiotics is a little controversial. On the surface of it, music doesn’t seem able to convey meaning; you can’t say, for instance, that middle C signifies a tree, or love, or the number 231. On the other hand, you could say that music can convey meaning within the external framework of a shared musical pedagogy. In that instance, a perfect cadence could convey a sense of satisfaction if there’s a socially-acknowledged precedent of perfect cadences representing satisfaction. But if this is the case in the Western tradition, there’s nothing to say it must hold in other musical traditions. Furthermore, some have argued that it’s possible to distinguish between a ‘meaning’ and a ‘significance’; that is, what a thing means in and of itself, and what significance external factors can give it in people’s minds. It’s fairly broadly accepted that music can connote — it can be made to signify something within its immediate context — but can it denote, or refer to something outside itself? Some say “yes” and some say “no” (and it sometimes seems that each answer is also followed by “of course, that should be obvious”).

This is barely scratching the surface of the question of musical meaning, let alone how (and if) music in games is meaningful. I know it is meaningful, at very least through its context within the audiovisual text, and I’m pretty sure there are even multiple ways in which it can bear meaning. But proving this in my thesis is shaping up to be a significant (and hopefully quite satisfying) challenge. I’m part way there with my current work, but every new text I read seems to open up further avenues for investigation. I guess I’m just glad that I can include some abstract theorising in my studies. Being able to look beyond the texts I study to the bigger issues, the things that inform, shape and permeate all such texts, and even beyond those things to the small glimpses one gets of how humans work through what they create; this is what, for me, makes this study worthwhile.

On the Writing of Words etc.

I’ve just finished up an intense period of writing and revising (potential) articles. It’s a bit of an intense process that mixes analysis, written creativity, formatting precision, and the uncomfortability of putting yourself out there to be judged. I generally like each of the first three when experienced separately, and I do admit that the combination can be engrossing when I’m getting into it. It’s the latter that gives writing its pain.

It’s a completely different kind of writing to what I’ve done previously at uni/school or on my own time. When you write for an assignment, you submit yourself to the judgement of your teacher, tutor or lecturer, but their judgement is usually final. Your only recourse is to do better next time. Conversely, the writing I’ve done on my own time has either remained unpublished (and thus not judged), or been published informally on a blog. And we all know that caring about how people respond to a blog post misses the point.

Writing for publication, though, requires you to submit yourself not to a judge you know, nor a public you ultimately disregard, but to a process. Strangers read your work, presumably think about it for a little while, then apply their own expertise to the task of correcting you. Publication (or the aiming theretowards) requires a great deal of faith in this process, which is only a rational faith if every scholar involved the process is equally dedicated to the maintenance of its integrity. In this corner of the world at least, the increasing responsibilities placed on scholars of administration, teaching and publication quotas in addition to their research is providing a fast-firming basis of doubt that the process can maintain itself. Who, after all, has time to read other people’s work carefully when their own institution is breathing down their necks? I am speculating here, of course, but it does seem logical that since humans and their attention spans are finite, increased responsibility in one area lessens the ability to meet responsibilities in others.

The safeguard is, then, to write as accurately and clearly as possible. But that’s complicated in a new field. I’m doing my best to write in a way that can be understood by someone who’s never studied (nor even played) video games, but it’s challenging. There’s a great study I found recently by Berger & McDougall (2013) that examined the use of L.A. Noire as part of English classes in the UK. It found (among other things) that although teachers could grapple with video games as texts, their students were both more willing and more able to consider these texts on an equal footing to films and novels. This appeared to go beyond what could be explained by familiarity alone, to that which I suppose is more akin to fluency. I do worry that I’m failing to articulate the nuances of the medium that I know to people who may not be as fluent in video games and their music as I am. I guess I’m not in the best position to know, but still, it’s kind of doing my head in.

Nevertheless! I’ve had a good couple of weeks of family things and working on my car, and now I’m back into research with a bit of teaching on the side. I’m looking at EVE Online with a bit more of an academic eye, which is coinciding with my corporation’s move into wormhole space — helpful for getting to know all of EVE‘s music. If there’s one thing studying L.A. Noire taught me, it’s to play all of a game before you write about it.

Globetrotting and Agri-mining

Nearly a month ago now, I got on a plane and went to England. My destination was the Ludomusicology 2013 conference at the University of Liverpool, run by the Ludomusicology Research Group. The conference spanned two days and featured papers on everything from case studies of game music, to generative music practices and technology, to the intersection of ludomusicology and gender studies. The field, though still young, is definitely maturing. It maintains its strong links to the industry and its heavily interdisciplinary character, but it is wrestling with many complex philosophical and cultural ideas and is beginning to resolve itself as an independent discipline. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of it.

Having the opportunity to gather and share ideas with others working in my field has provoked me to engage more fervently with my own studies. There just aren’t as many opportunities for that in Australia yet, though I’m even more determined to change that than I was before. (If you or someone you know studies video game music academically in Australia or New Zealand, we should talk!) Nevertheless, I’m trying to tackle my own little task with alacrity. The next month contains an article deadline and another international conference, so I’m keeping myself rather busy. I’m a little ragged around the edges, and I feel like I’ve got so little time for gaming, but it is good to be getting into the swing of things.

I must confess, however, that my academic fervour fails dismally from time to time, and the culprit is usually Minecraft. I’ve recently learned how to farm and traverse oceans in my single player game, and have been building roads stretching for miles with my wife in our multi-player world. The farming experience has made me wonder what right a mining game has to be so damn cute. It’s not just that the baby animals are adorable, either. So many of the game’s mechanics—from crafting a sword from sticks and stones, to the way fish fly out of the water into your hands when you’re fishing—are done so simply that even when completely functional they’re playful. And when you’ve spent hours being distracted by Minecraft, it’s impossible to be angry at it for being so addictive because you’d feel like a big old meanie. Sneaky, sneaky game.