PlayAway: Dr Matthew Barr

When we think about Scotland’s significant contributions to the medium of videogames, we tend to think about pinching sports cars, factories full of ZX Spectrums and little rodents tumbling off walls en masse. But that perception is due for an update thanks to the Glasgow Games and Gaming Lab, a cross-disciplinary research hub at the University of Glasgow that’s quietly turning Glasgow and Scotland into a landmark and leader in the field of Game Studies.

“What is Game Studies?”, you might be asking. Well, luckily there’s a whole day of panels dedicated to that very question and much more at the PlayAway Festival, the first of which – the Postgraduate Research Panel – will offer an overview of the various kinds of games research individuals are currently undertaking at the University of Glasgow, including fascinating topics like game preservation, game balancing and how games impact our perception of reality.

Dr Matthew Barr

That panel will be chaired by Dr Matthew Barr, a lecturer based in the Centre for Computing Science Education and co-director of the Games and Gaming Lab who has helped oversee a change in the attitude towards games as a serious subject of study at the University of Glasgow.

Barr, whose background is in education research, was already working in academia when he came across Game Studies for the first time.

“I had no idea that people went off and did PhDs in games,” he told us. “That was news to me and it continues to be news to some people to this day. So when I realised that was a possibility, a kind of idea formed in my head for my PhD combining my interest in games with my interest in education and learning. I mean, it just seemed like an obvious thing to do.”

We turned out OK, didn’t we?

Part of what drove Barr to explore the links between games and education was the mismatch he perceived between the negative public image of games at the time and the very positive impact he felt they’d had on his and his colleagues’ development.

“The genesis of that was really just talking [rubbish] in the office. You know, a bunch of us sitting around there, all of a certain age, and we all grew up playing games. We started talking about how the public discourse around lifelong gamers is not pretty and yet we’re all doing OK.

And then I advanced that thought and thought ‘well actually we got some good things out of playing games’. And that turned into focus groups and after that into a larger study on games and learning.”

Matthew Barr's book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning

Barr’s research on game-based learning led him to establish the first Game Studies course at the University of Glasgow, which he taught while working on what would become his recent book on games and education, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning.

In the meantime, he found he’d earned himself a reputation as the token “games guy” at the institution, becoming a waypoint for enthusiastic students from all of the university who wanted to incorporate games into their research projects.

“Over the years, word got around that ‘Matt knows about games’ – whether that’s true or not, that’s fine, that’s the impression that I like to give! But increasingly I got asked to supervise projects. So some of the early ones were in psychology and a whole bunch have been in English literature and now of course computing science.”

Building a little community

This volume of student interest was the catalyst for launching Press Start, a student led Games Studies journal which collected all this disparate games-related research in one place while also connecting Glasgow’s students with the conversations happening in games research internationally.

“Press Start journal was an outlet for all these students who are studying games, not necessarily in games departments, but just across the board and somewhere for them to publish their work. But also, you want to build a little community, not just in Scotland, but internationally, so they could support one another.”

Building upon this idea of creating a home for games research within the University of Glasgow, Barr established the Games and Gaming Lab along with Jane Draycott, Timothy Peacock and Dimitra Fimi in 2019. Since then, the lab has acted as a place for researchers from different departments and disciplines to exchange knowledge and collaborate on the subject of games at a university while also serving as a public-facing banner to attract funding and promote researchers’ work.

“Even though it’s based within the College of Arts, under the auspices of the arts lab, our membership is across the university, as you’d expect; from psychology, sociology, computing, science… There’s a really broad spectrum.

It’s not got a huge budget, but the idea is just to put games on the map and give something to focus around so we can attract interest, and get like minded people together. And a number of interesting projects are beginning to spring from that, I’m pleased to say. So hopefully in the next 12 months or so, we’ll see a few more output from the lab. But really, it’s bringing together like-minded people from all different backgrounds.”

University of Glasgow Games and Gaming Lab

Sharing notes

Just looking at the PlayAway Festival programme gives a clear indication of the considerable amount of activity going on at the lab. As well as the panel we’ve already mentioned, there’s a conversation on the ways games research might be leveraged outside academica called Game Studies in the Wild: Practical Applications of Games Research chaired by author and Fantasy academic Ruth Booth, as well as a primer on how to get into games research yourself led by William Kavanagh (who we recently spoke to) called Paths to Research. Later in the same day, there’s a workshop from another University of Glasgow games researcher, Gabriel Elvery, which you can read all about here.

The lab has also hosted a number of events, including an evening all about space in games in collaboration with Glasgow-based developer NoCode that Barr hopes can be the blueprint for future partnerships between academia and the Scottish games industry.

“I don’t think you can look at the two and isolation. You have to understand the industry as well, if you want a broad picture of game studies.”

In particular, he’s interested in the mutually beneficial idea sharing that can occur when academics make the jump into industry, and vice-versa.

“Those sorts of PhDs that tie up industry with academia are a fantastic opportunity, but when they do happen, they tend to be with the big banks, or the big tech companies and things like that. But absolutely, we should be doing it with the games industry for that sort of knowledge exchange. I think that it really opens things up. And one of the benefits of these kinds of industrial PhDs, as we call them, is that two way flow of ideas. Even at a lower level with my graduate apprentices, they’re bringing new ideas into companies, even though there are only undergrads, you know? So there’s definitely more scope for that with the games industry and working with academia.”

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The snowball effect

Clearly there’s an enormous amount of potential for the relationship between games and academica in Scotland to develop, not to mention games studies in general, and we’re very excited to keep a close watch on both of those at SGN going into the future.

But it’s also just as clear that a lot of pioneering work has already been done in Glasgow in breaking game studies out of being isolated undertaking and bringing it in contact with other fields of study and the wider world in general. Barr believes that just like games are beginning to become more accepted in the mainstream media for their positive aspects (in fact you can see him speak on this very subject in the recent BBC documentary, Gaming and Me), games are also becoming a natural part of academia due to the influence of younger students who’ve grown up taking it for granted that games are important cultural artifacts.

“What I really like is that I think there’s a critical mass already of people who want to research games. Because student’s get it. They know we should be researching these things. So they’re coming to their supervisors with ideas and now what’s happening is that supervisors are going ‘oh yeah, that’s not [bovine droppings], that’s something you can actually do for a dissertation’ and it’s just snowballing from there.”

The Panel

PlayAway Festival Logo

As we’ve mentioned already, the panel Barr’s chairing is the Postgraduate Research Panel, which takes place during the PlayAway Festival on Thursday 25 February at 11:30.

Let’s let him explain it, shall we?

We’ve assembled a number of postgraduate research students or PhDs, and there’s one Masters of Philosophy. They’re each going to give a very brief overview of the work they’re doing and then we’ll just go straight into a Q&A. And I’m just going to moderate it there. I’m just there to bring that touch of glamour.

We’ve got Lauren Watson, who’s one of my MPhil students, and they’re actually coming from a film background, but they’re looking at preservation in a really interesting way. They’re looking at fan preservation of video games, and how online fan archives are managed. And their plan is to look at how fans are grappling with those basic issues about how you maintain multiplayer games and stuff like that. But also quite exciting I think, is what Lauren is looking at is how the visual language of what they called self reflexive games is affected by emulation. So those games like that broke the fourth wall or mess with your expectations, and the ones that pretended to crash and showed you the blue screen of death. And the blue screen of death means plenty to me, but not to today’s 16 year old, right? It’s things like that, the little interesting things around the edges.

And we’ve got Francis Butterworth-Parr, who’s one of my PhD students, and he’s looking at the clash of videogames and literature – specifically the modern novel novels that feature games or gamers in some way. And he’s got this brilliant theory called “machphrasis” that combines literature and gaming and cultural studies. And he’s used it to do all kinds of things like hypothesizing that novelists began writing about video games in the 80s and to try and engage with cold war anxieties. And he’s also looked at how we think about escapism and addiction and games. And he’s even managed to bring it up to date and connect it with Trump and the rise of the far right. Francis has got a lot going on.

Related to that a little bit is Kirsty [Dunlop]’s work. Kirsty is a doctoral student, but it’s a creative doctorate. She’s doing practice based research on interactive fiction that combines creative writing, computer science, games and literature. So she’s writing a big, interactive novel, essentially that’s the centrepiece of her work. But it includes gameplay elements, you know, player choice, randomization and so on. And she’s looking at the concept of the glitch, and [the moment] in games when reality’s glitching. And there’s this brilliant term that she’s come up with called “emergent essaying”, as opposed to emergent gameplay. It’s a sort of hybrid form that she’s working on.

Then there’s William Kavanagh [and his] balancing of games. It’s very brilliant and very practical and very maths based, so Will will be discussing the maths and the panel because I can’t.

And finally, Monica Vasquez. She is another of my PhD students who’s trying to figure out a new way of understanding the relationship between fantasy and reality. She’s looking at how we engage with fantasy literature on the one hand and then virtual reality games on the other. Both of them being quite immersive experiences – you get immersed in the book, get immersed in VR – and how that shapes our reality and understanding of the world.

It’s five completely different completely contrasting pieces of work, all of them games related. I think it really just shows that that breadth of topics that we can study in games, so really looking forward to it. I’ll have my work cut out for me keeping up with all the young minds, but I’ll do my best.

Photo by Phil Reid on Unsplash

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