The UWM Digital Cultures Collaboratory is an interdisciplinary research collaborative that has several pursuits, most of which revolve around the convergence of streaming technologies and games. The Collaboratory receives generous support by the Center for 21st Century Studies, a research institution at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee that has been at the forefront of critical theory, the humanities, and technology for fifty years.
The study of computer games and their culture has been a significant research area in the College of Letters and Science for more than a decade. With other colleagues in the College and University, faculty have improvised an informal, interdisciplinary game-studies community. More than a dozen graduate students have been part of this enterprise since 2010, mainly in Anthropology and English. There have been important synergies between their activities and undergraduate programs, including Film Studies and Digital Arts and Culture.
Institutional boundaries constrain these activities, though with the opening of the Digital Humanities Laboratory in 2012, collaboration notably intensified, driven to an important degree by the commitment of doctoral students. This rising interest has brought the emerging conception to a new stage of development: formation of a formal research project.
The subject and technical foundation of this project is game-play streaming, the ability to broadcast the output of a video game over the Internet with simultaneous audio commentary and an accompanying text-based chat channel. Primary support for this activity comes via Twitch.tv, popularly known as the Twitch network, a service with more than a million broadcasters and regular audiences totaling in hundreds of millions. We find three compelling interests in this technology: as an emerging social medium, it is a significant subject for critical study; the medium provides new and intriguing ways to represent and investigate gameplay itself; and crucially, the global reach of Twitch suggests a way to publicize the work of our students and raise awareness of UWM and its programs.
HISTORY AND LOGIC OF THE GROUP
In addition to Anthropology, English, and JAMS, significant support for game study has come from the Golda Meir Library and its Digital Humanities Laboratory. The Lab was in large measure the invention of Ann Hanlon, the Director of Digital Connections and Initiatives. Nathan Humpal, Metadata Librarian, played a formative role both in startup of the Lab and the project from which this Collaboratory evolved, a series of activities known as “Serious Play.” Proposed by Moulthrop and his doctoral students in 2013, this enterprise began as an occasion for lectures, workshops, and seminars. As Malaby, his students, and others joined in, Serious Play embraced podcasters from outside the University, play testing of games developed by student entrepreneurs, and most recently, the streaming project. Sustained and developing organically over four years, Serious Play has been a natural combination of the library’s mission and student and faculty research, with important and established practices of reaching beyond the University to the broader community.
The streaming project began as a collaboration between Humpal and doctoral students in Anthropology and English, Laya Liebseller, Justin Schumaker, and Kris Purzycki, along with Malaby’s recent PhD, Krista- Lee Malone. Known in its experimental phase as “The Lunch Zone” because its limited operations had to fit into Humpal’s lunch break, the activity consisted of occasional streaming of play-with-commentary.
Serious Play now runs eight weekly shows, each focusing on a different aspect of play, games, and gaming cultures.
The Digital Cultures Collaboratory is a venture sponsored by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Collaboratory supports staff, faculty, and graduate students who investigate social play of digital and analog games, live streaming, and other aspects of computational and procedural culture. The Collaboratory
– fosters a community of interest around game studies research at UWM, supporting theoretical and methodological work on various kinds of games;
– supports graduate and faculty research by sharing play in a context of social inquiry and expanding a common repertoire of game experiences;
– promotes exchange of ideas among various disciplines and approaches and provides a supportive community;
– develops connections with researchers and teachers beyond UWM as well as non-academic communities;
– enables professional development of its members both in the context of published research and for opportunities outside higher education;
– explores organized media production within graduate education as part of a larger inquiry into the evolving nature of academic research and its relationship to society.
Activities of the Collaboratory include hosting visiting scholars, organizing workshops and symposia, editing and publishing research, testing games in development, and producing play experiences for public consumption on platforms like Twitch.tv. A major project of the Collaboratory has been the Serious Play channel on Twitch, broadcasting weekly shows featuring tabletop role-playing, analog games, and video games of various genres. Streaming is mainly conducted in a production facility operated by the Collaboratory under the auspices of the Center.
The Collaboratory may add new projects as technologies and contexts change. All such ventures will be guided by three commitments, aligned with and extending the priorities of the Center:
- Critical Orientation: The Collaboratory operates from a critical stance that relates games and other aspects of digital culture to larger questions of justice, ethics, and social value, in relation to relevant historical narratives and leading theories from several disciplines. Our research will respect and engage diverse perspectives, including those of queer, racially oppressed, and otherwise under-represented subjects.
- MultidisciplinaryMethods: Members of the Collaboratory will undertake various activities, including discussions of theory and history, platform and/or code study, close reading, data analysis, participant observation, interviews, data gathering, and others that cannot be anticipated here.
- Empirical Approach: Our flexibility in method has one restriction. Because our subjects require active engagement — what we call the performance of contingency — the Collaboratory is committed to empirical work, both in the context of qualitative social science research and as enacted interpretation in a literary/textual framework.
- Public Orientation: The work ofthe Collaboratory will anticipate audiences beyond the academy and aspire to transparency and accessibility. Products of the Collaboratory will regularly include popular forms like live streams of play, blogposts, and forms of social media activity. When feasible, work will be provided in a format that enables distribution according to a creative commons license and accessible to publics of all physical capacities.
Though the primary audience for the Collaboratory’s work will be scholars and individuals seeking to engage with digital culture in a thoughtful manner, we will strive to expand this audience and to remain as welcoming as possible, consistent with our critical research commitments.
- View Beyond the “Digital:“The Collaboratory resides in a Center whose mission includes the “creation of new critical methodologies for analyzing digital media.” This inquiry entails critical, empirical engagement with digital media and the platforms on which they are distributed. However, we do not limit our concerns to electronic systems, but understand the digital as part of a larger domain of procedural culture including tabletop and live-action role-play, as well as games based on non-digital media. In this respect we embrace the most generous definition of cultural studies of technology, ready to take up questions that go beyond applications of digital computing.