From its inception, game studies (and its European version in particular) has been struggling to constitute itself as an independent, interdisciplinary research field. Even today true institutional independence seems to be a rather optimistic vision – given the fact that most (young) game studies scholars are expected to connect their research to their ‘native’ disciplines, since this is where institutional support, publishing opportunities and – eventually – research grants and jobs are available. Opposing this trend (as well as other repressive aspects of the ‘academic game’ like peer-review barriers, excessive conference fees or disciplinary self-referentiality) the researching games BarCamp has positioned itself as a rather radical alternative: an annual ‘un-conference’ allowing games researchers and practitioners to present and discuss their projects at eye level – regardless of institutional and disciplinary affiliation, academic grade or track record. On April 28-29, 2017 this year’s BarCamp took place as part of the International Games Week Berlin, and was organized by Florian Berger, Christian Roth, Melanie Fritsch, Annegret Montag, and myself.

Being an official partner of the Games Week – which also hosts events like the Quo Vadis Game Developer Conference or the indie games festival A MAZE – we aimed specifically for an exchange between games research, design and art. As in recent years, this unorthodox approach turned out to attract quite a heterogeneous (and fascinating!) group of 60 participants from all over Europe. Facilitated by the cozy atmosphere of the purposefully informal BarCamp venue, the Youth Hostel Berlin Ostkreuz, it didn’t take long till everyone fully embraced the BarCamp concept by engaging in passionate and entertaining discussions about all things video games. Each day, the schedule was created from scratch and its order decided by the plenum. Topics ranged from critical perspectives on games and gender or the moral status of virtual actions, to technical aspects of movement and presence in VR, serious game design, and insights into game art practices.[1]

Despite (or due to?) the wide variety of disciplinary perspectives represented at the BarCamp (e. g., philosophy, literature studies, musicology, theatre studies, information science, game art, and film studies) the discussions following the 20-minutes talks were often very instructive – for both the listeners and the speakers. And although the schedule already allowed for extensive discussions of each talk, these were often continued during the breaks or at the lunch/dinner table. Finally, some participants took the fun in BarCamp seriously and offered some pretty unusual but highly entertaining contributions. #resgames veterans Christian Huberts and Rudolf Inderst, for example, kicked off the BarCamp by coming up with a game studies bullshit bingo which the participants put to good use during the event. Also, the traditional lightning talk/rant session on Friday night proved so popular that another session was included in Saturday’s schedule, too.

The regular talks and presentations covered a wide variety of topics. Somewhat surprisingly, gender representation in video games was one of the most popular topics with more than 5 talks devoted to sexism and/or male and female stereotyping in game character design and storytelling.  While Maria Kutscherow discussed recent trends in gender representation in mobile games,[2] both Lea Harbich and Jakob Gustavs focused on stereotypes in male and female character design – and how to avoid them. Pretty unusual but highly interesting takes on the topic were presented by Dutch musicologist Martine Mussies, who examined the portrayal of mermaids in video games through the lens of feminism, and Andreas Weidlich, who discussed the male (?) protagonist in Vagrant Story as a metareferential nod towards the narratology-ludology debate.

A second theme of the BarCamp was the educational and participatory potential of digital games. Stephan Schölzel discussed how gamification principles could be applied in youth work, Sebastian Möring talked about “sick games for health”, Maximilian Krauß told us what ‘the serious’ could do for our game experience, and Angelika Beranek gave an overview on gaming as a field for experimentation and participatory processes. Given the more theoretical approach of these talks, it was also nice to have them complemented by a practical perspective: Game designer Johanna Janiszewski demonstrated her game Treasure Monkeys, a “geometry treasure hunt” where players travel through the coco caribbean and use the power of geometry to find treasures.

This however was not the only talk focusing on practical aspects of game development. Attracted by the Gamesweek, many game designers and artists found their way to the BarCamp, too. Most notably, more than a dozen game art students from De Montford University Leicester, UK joined us at the event and contributed their expertise in design practices both to the discussions and the very enjoyable (lightning) talks they gave. Similarly, experienced game designer Mario Janiszewski shared valuable lessons learned in his 12-year game development career, fostering a fruitful exchange between young and veteran designers. Finally, theoretical issues of game design for Virtual Reality apps were discussed by Eike Langbehn and Jeffrey Harris who focused on walking and the sensation of presence in VR.

Many other presentations reflected aesthetic, philosophical or narrative aspects of digital games. [Needless to say that I enjoyed those talks quite a bit.] Rita Santoyo Veneers connected ludological, philosophical and educational discourses to talk about the epistemic value of failure in games (Jesper Juul would have approved!), Adrian Froschauer discussed aesthetic and narrative strategies of (dis)empowerment and fear in survival horror games, while Arne K. Fischer focused on notational iconicity in digital (music) learning games. In another pretty interesting talk Samuel Ulbricht charted unknown philosophical territory by proposing a rather innovative perspective on the moral status of virtual actions. Building on Kendall Walton’s theory of fiction he suggested that virtual actions should not be subjected to ordinary ethics but to a quasi-ethics (with the actions themselves being quasi-immoral at best).[3] Another memorable moment of the BarCamp was the pair of (subsequent) talks presented by Thomas West and Erik Eschmann who re-enacted the infamous ludology-narratology debate by juxtaposing two contradictory views on the question whether we should look for challenge and/or meaning in video games (spoiler: can’t hurt to look for both).

In sum, more than 60 participants gave almost 30 presentations (plus a couple of lightning talks) over the course of 2 days – an impressive number. More importantly, though, all participants contributed to the lively discussions following the talks and worked towards an open and welcoming BarCamp spirit. Just as last year, we were also happy to get the chance to attend the A MAZE. Berlin festival’s exhibition and party on Friday night, which allowed everyone to mingle even more and connect to other Games Week visitors.

On behalf of the organizing team I would like to thank all participants as well as our generous sponsors and our fantastic on-site supporter Jeff for making this event a memorable and fun experience! 🙂 All the details about researching games BarCamp 2017 can be found on our website. Next year’s BarCamp is scheduled for April 27-28, 2018.

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[1] The complete schedule can be found here: http://slotplan.researchinggames.net

[2] Maria has published an earlier version of this paper here: http://www.paidia.de/?p=4807 

[3] An abridged, German version of this argument can be found here: https://einfachmeins.wordpress.com/2016/08/18/eine-quasi-moral-fuer-videospiele/

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