Adam Russell: My PhD on Videogame Narrative


PhD student Adam Russell gives an overview of his research on videogame narrative, and a side-angle view into the life of a PhD student at Falmouth.

I'm a 3rd year part-time PhD student (was full-time until 1 year ago), enrolled Sep 2014 and originally co-supervised by Prof. Tanya Krzywinska (DoS / Games), Jerome Fletcher (English) and Misha Myers (Theatre - has since left for Monash). I am fully-funded by the AHRC 3D3 consortium (as it seems you already knew), and since the dissolution of Falmouth's Graduate School I believe I'm formally part of the Games Academy which split off / emerged from the School of Film and Television in 2015-16. But as you can see, I don't really fit well into any department.

My rough profile is 'philosopher-coder-artist'. I started out in fairly straight-laced Philosophy and Psychology at Oxford many years ago, but my Masters is in AI / Artificial Life / dynamical systems. Now I'm doing practice-research in digital media driven by an agenda situated in process/relational philosophy and centering around what I used to call 'non-instrumental interactions'. I'm concerned with finding a view of agency distributed somewhere between our actions being shaped and constructed by the structure of the social situation ('determining what there is to do'), and being radically free and arising from a private individual free will ('choosing what to do from what there is'). I loathe the idea that we can and should construct microcosms within which agents are 'free' to choose whatever they want but only from what is provided. In particular the notion of 'serious games' (for social good as well as marketing purposes) makes me very suspicious.

I worked in the videogames industry for some years on designing + programming the AI behaviour of non-player characters in triple-A narrative games, my chief credit being the Village Simulation and villager opinion system in Microsoft's Fable (in fact I gave a half-day workshop to Creative Writing about this and more a couple of years ago). I got out in 2007 and went into teaching as a Senior Lecturer in Games Programming for a few years, but was hating feeling like I was just supplying more meat for the grinder. Like so many of us I'm sure. I got out again in 2011 and started 'live event games' company wallFour with one other former triple-A designer and Senior Lecturer. We went on to make a 100-player game for cinemas called Renga which won a couple of awards and was toured around film festivals (as well as games events), including TIFF, NYFF and others in 2012. However we didn't pursue this endeavour, mainly because I became more and more interested in experimental, non-commercial ideas, and fixed on the concept of becoming an artist-academic via an MFA or a practice-based PhD.

My original PhD title was 'Play as lived relation : non-instrumental interactions with player-character bodies in videogame narrative', registered Feb 2015. However since then I've descended underneath an explicit connection with both video games and narrative, arriving only last month (as now part-time) at my Confirmation of Route (see attached*). The title is now 'Playful ignorance: nonlinear time and tools for not knowing'.

I gave 3 papers in 2016 : at Plymouth's Practice-Experience-Presence symposium ('Excessive play: nonlinear temporalities in the form of games'), the Association of Art Historians conference ('Worringer's gothic line and the playing of video games', forthcoming as a Leonardo Electronic Almanac article) and the Philosophy of Computer Games conference ('On Playful Ignorance: the union of opposites in videogame epistemology').

Most recently I was accepted as a participating artist in Motion Bank's Choreographic Coding Lab in Amsterdam last week, a 5-day intensive hackspace / forum which preceded the FIBER Festival and it's theme for this year of Alchemy. This was particularly great for me because my original Application for Registration (in Nov 2014) had an explicitly Alchmical theme framing the research (on player-avatar relation as a sacred marriage).