In theory, the path to a PhD in the arts is simple: study hard as an undergraduate, find a topic that interests you and put together a proposal. When your thesis topic is the “depictions of mental health in decadent literature” or “just images in French new wave cinema”, the path, although strenuous, is neatly set out. If you work hard, the steps are clear and the work you do will be considered fulfilling and worthwhile.
However, there are ways to complicate this.
I studied for a BA in English literature. For three years, I probed for themes, techniques and devices in the wonderfully lexiphanic pages of Virginia Woolf and Thomas Malory. I worshipped the former, scorned the latter, but all the while my gaze could not help shifting away from the written word.
I became fascinated with the visual, with the language of film and television, of artworks and photography, and with something else too – something rarely mentioned in the traditional discourse surrounding art. It is shunned in the classroom, scorned on the evening news and is the bane of every parent trying to persuade their child to finish their homework: video games.
Halfway through the third year of my undergraduate degree, I told my dissertation tutor that I wanted to change my topic. When I told her that I now wished to throw an obscure French philosopher’s ideas about the image at a set of esoteric “art” games, I prepared myself to see the idea terminated and my study redirected to the safe shores of poetry or prose.
Instead, she encouraged me wholeheartedly (although she may just have been glad that I’d finally settled on a topic). Twelve thousand words later, I had discovered a blossoming body of academic work, in its youth but dense with ideas. Within it I saw an uncharted space, a model waiting to be constructed, and I knew that I wanted to be part of its formation.
And that holds true to this day: I want to be an academic who studies video games. As I’ve continued to study video games through the lens of 20th-century French theory in my MA, I have found nothing but support for this goal. There is an awareness in universities that video games, as the dominant media of contemporary society, require the same academic attention afforded to other artistic forms.
When I’ve expressed a desire to pursue a PhD in critical theory to video games, tutors have encouraged the endeavour, pointing to the field’s growth and the need for thinkers in the area. This need stems from two facts: the first is its youth, which leaves plenty of room for growth. The second fact is related to the first and in many ways operates to negate it: there is very little financial backing for video game studies.
The reasons for this are complicated. Among them is the decreasing support for universities by governments, leading universities to only court PhD candidates with projects with the potential for profit.
Another is the increased pressures on universities to justify their existence by pandering to an increasingly traditionalist government and public who predominantly seem to see worth only in the classic texts of the English canon. PhD funding bodies are encouraged to limit themselves to funding safe, conventional project proposals, meaning projects like my own lack backing.
Had I chosen to study Shakespeare or Wordsworth, my path to a PhD would have been difficult but clear. Instead, I am faced with the lingering anxiety that I will never receive the funding I need, no matter how impressive a candidate I can make myself when I send in my proposal. I can’t help but wonder about all the talented individuals with the next great idea that have never had the opportunity to develop this field in its crucial moment of development.
If you too are trying to find a foothold in the world of video game academia, I cannot give you any advice – except maybe to email me; there are only a few of us and we should band together. Know that it will be worth it and please don’t be deterred.
Video games are an exciting and fresh medium that demands critical apprehension. The path towards a PhD in such a new arena is uncharted territory, but it is one well worth travelling.
Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students