Faculty, Students Delve into Pop Culture

“Video game culture is really troublesome,” said Communication Professor Chris Paul. “It can be racist, misogynist, and sexist, and we need to pay attention to that.”

Gaming has skyrocketed in popularity, with annual industry revenues exceeding $20 billion. Paul, who is internationally recognized for his analysis of video games and the socio-cultural context of game design and play, is raising red flags about meritocratic undertones in games.

“People can say what they want to with impunity online,” he noted. “Games are not harmless and innocuous when they equate successful players with being better people.”

While Chris  is focusing his research on meritocratic game narratives and design, he is mentoring two students on independent projects. Both led to presentations at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association annual meeting held in Chicago last spring.

Kathryn Smith (above left), Strategic Communications major with a minor in Business Administration, examined games for social change. These games attempt to extend the benefits of entertainment to include knowledge-sharing as well as a call to action. They attempt to connect individuals across the globe with information about problems such as world hunger or women’s oppression. “Half the Sky,” for example, seeks to raise awareness of issues facing women and girls worldwide, like human trafficking and maternal mortality. In her research, Smith found that games for social change are fundamentally flawed.

“In some cases, players can’t achieve change because they leave the game after a very short time,” she noted. “Often the impact is only on the screen, and a call to action is missing.”

After researching classic game theory, she proposed a set of solutions for how they can be fixed. These included multifaceted game structure, the addition of humor, and post-game debriefing.

Anina Walas (above right), majoring in Communication and Psychology, began researching cosplay during the summer after her sophomore year. Cosplay, short for costume play, involves participants who take on the costumes of characters in pop culture. Star Trek and Star Wars conventions, for example, take place in major cities throughout the United States and attract thousands of people who dress up as their favorite characters.

Television has built on this interest in cosplay, and Walas studied gender fluidity in a subset of cosplay, crossplay, where an individual takes on a different gender.

“Costumes provide the cosplayer with an opportunity to gender-play and explore gender attributes,” Walas said. “As crossplay becomes more frequent in mainstream television and culture, we could begin to see it as normal, which will likely have impacts on our perceptions about gender.”

Walas notes that examples of gender fluidity can be found in various cultures throughout history. Her research focuses on how the cosplay community could reshape traditional gender concepts and stereotypes through its presence in mainstream media.

“Arina and Katie were probably two of just a handful of undergraduates allowed to present in Chicago,” Paul said. “It’s a testimony to the value of their research to the field.”

Walas and Smith, now seniors, are editing their papers with plans to submit them to academic journals. Paul expects to publish a book on gaming in 2015.

Published: September 2014


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