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We Talked to the Scholar Who Just Got $2.3 Million to Study Games

Espen Aarseth won a €2 million grant to study games. I was very jealous so I called him to find out how he did it.
May 9, 2016, 12:00pm
Image: IT University of Copenhagen.

Last week, the European Union's European Research Council announced that Espen Aarseth won its competitive Advanced Grant. It's designed to allow researchers to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects in Europe, and it comes with a €2 million (roughly $2.3 million USD) reward.

Espen Aarseth studies video games. Specifically, he is the Head of Research at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, and editor-in-chief of the journal Game Studies.


The grant is easily one of the highest honors a researcher in this relatively new field has received. Aarseth will use the money to fund a new, five-year research project called Making Sense of Games, which will attempt to create a "theoretical foundation for working with games of both the digital and analog variety," Aarseth said in a press release.

What the hell does that mean, and how could it possibly cost €2 million? Why is Aarseth getting this honor and cash to think about video games all day, and not, say, me?

I called him to find out.

Motherboard: Are you very excited right now?

Espen Aarseth: I mean, the money is nice, super nice, but the grant is a huge honor. It's super competitive. To give you an idea, it's something that's been given for the last 10 years in Europe. Everybody in Europe is competing for these grants. The panel that I was in is part of the social sciences, economics, and humanities, which is about culture and cultural production, research on visual art, movies, literature and music. In Denmark only one person has gotten it before in those 10 years. In Norway, where I'm from, nobody got it before in that particular sub-category.

What is a "theoretical foundation for working with games of both the digital and analog variety?"

It's suggesting and establishing concepts with which to talk about games critically. A critical language we can use when we discuss games, their meaning, their functions, their cultural uses, what it means for the players, and perhaps for designers. It'll be interesting to see if this is something developers in the industry could use, but that's not the main purpose.


"The people who decide these things have come around to see games as a completely legitimate and important field of study."

The main purpose to give my colleagues in game studies, the humanities, psychology, and other fields, good critical concepts with which to understand games better.

Why do you think you won this grant?

You could say that it hasn't been until recently that we gained acceptance for game studies as a field of equal importance to other fields. Maybe finally the people who decide these things have come around to see games as a completely legitimate and important field of study.

There are two reasons I think I was successful. One is I had the qualifications I think they were looking for: Somebody who has mentored a lot of PhD students before, and has been part of creating a new field. The project also tried to do something new, that hasn't been done before, which I successfully argued was important. You could call it a research program, a deep effort with more than one person over many years working together, trying to establish a foundation for this field of research, a paradigm if you will.

I don't expect everyone to come on board with what we'll propose in five years, but I do hope that this will be something they can work either with or against. I want it to be something they respond to fruitfully and critically and come up with their own models and theories.

It's high risk, and I think that's why it got funded. They want to fund things that are high gain, high risk. If it's obvious, why would they fund it?


Fallout 4. Image: Bethesda

So most of the money is going to other researchers you'll hire?

Yes. I will probably hire eight people total over five years. PhD students usually study for three years, so I'll have two sets of two that will overlap in the middle, and then something like four post-doc, that are typically on for two years each. Eight or nine people over five years. We also have money for conferences, and to bring in PhD students from elsewhere for workshops.

What does this look like the first day in your office when you start working on this? Are you writing? Are you playing games? Are you making games?

Before I start I have to hire these people, which will take some time. Hopefully, November 1 those people will be here, and we'll sit down together and plan the whole thing in more detail. What should the seminars be about, what should the workshops be about, how should we organize the conference, and also what should be our common focus. Everyone will work on their own sub-projects, but we'll also have common goals. For instance, my plan is to have a particular focus that everyone will contribute to for six months before we move on. For example, it could be the topic of agency, genre, or something like that.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge?

To make sure we are doing something of use for others, that makes a difference to other researches, the public, maybe teachers. Games are used in schools for teaching these days, and so teachers are also interested in how they can teach games and give students good tools to play games. I want what we do to have value, established analysis tools for games in several areas, not just for ourselves.


Do you ever read consumer-level, mainstream reviews on sites like IGN or GameSpot?

Yes I do.

What do you think about those?

They're fine as far as they go. They do what they do. There's also an interesting development of Let's Play YouTubers competing with those sites. I'm interested in all of those discourse venues and how they present games and create game culture. It's not going to be a major part of the project, but we will look at that.

How is that stuff useful to you?

It's important because if you take a word that already has uses and users, should you then try to establish another sense of that word? Should it now become something more narrow, or should you not try to interfere so much with everyday layman language terms?

Just the word "game" means so many different things to so many different people. I'm on the side of those who don't really want to define what a game is, because I don't think that's my job. I would like to let people have that word and use it as they always have used it.

"When I play a game I really try to pick games that I don't want to play because that's only way to learn something new."

That is the difference between criticism and theory. Theory is not so interested in discussing what's good and what's bad and what's fun and what's not. I'm much more interested in seeing in how games are expressive and how they are systems in a wide variety of ways. I want to be able to describe what's the difference between Mario Kart and Fallout 4 for instance. I want to come up with a good description of what makes one game different from another.


I also want to help, for instance, if you're a psychologist and you're trying to determine whether games make people violent or not. Politicians are influenced by these findings. I want to help them understand what they're looking at. I don't think they always understand well enough.

If they're comparing, say, Wolfenstein 3D and Myst, and then based on that comparison decide that games like Wolfenstein might make people more aggressive than Myst, and that's because of the violence. I want to be able to tell them, look, maybe you should compare more similar games where you can isolate the violence factor, and then look at the effects, rather than take two games that are so different in so many ways and think that you measured one aspect that you haven't isolated.

That's the mission I'm on. Developing nuanced, more sharp concepts for describing the design space of games.

Metro 2033. Image: 4A Games

I know this might seem trivial, but I'm very interested in knowing, can you mention one or two games that you've played and enjoyed recently?

[laughs] Yeah, but I should also say that when I play a game I really try to pick games that I don't want to play because that's only way to learn something new. For me to really invest my time in a game, ideally—and I'm a sinner against this principle—it should be a game I don't really want to play, because that's the best way of learning something new about games.

I don't have much time these days to play games, but I'm trying to finish Fallout 4, before that The Witcher 3. I used to play Skyrim, not to finish it, but as some kind of meditation where I just did book retrieval quests for that librarian, because he has an endless amount of book quests and they're fun to do now and then.

I'm also reading the Metro 2033 novel and looking forward to playing the game when I'm done.

Thank you for your time.