Professor Emma Vossen & The Rise of GI Janes

As final exams come to an end, so do our weekly meetings with our professors. However, Emma Vossen is one professor you'll want to see time and time again. Her class discussions on digital media topics are engaging while her lecture content always manage to stay relevant and captivating. (No naps to be taken here, folks!) Emma's specific involvement in feminism and gaming lead to a much desired interview with the rather inspiring woman. She currently wears many hats as a professor, Editor in Chief of First Person Scholar, co-founder of Games Institute Janes, and an all around cool person. Check out what she had to say here:

Can you tell me about your academic background?

I did my undergrad at Carleton University in the English department. They have a really interesting program in the sense that they offer hands-on writing workshops through both digital and traditional literature courses. When I was there, I was studying a lot of poetry, specifically Canadian poetry. I took a lot of poetry writing workshops and that sort of thing. And then one summer, I needed to take some courses after I switched my major, which is when I took some Gender Studies English classes. I took that at the same time I was taking a first-year film class. These were supposed to be throw away credits to fill up my time table. In my first-year film class, we learned all this media studies stuff that I never learned in English. Right away, they throw all this theory at you and I was just like 'This is the best!'' I took a Gender Studies class for the first time after having avoided it, to be honest.

What made you decide to do a Ph.D.?

I never thought Film and Gender Studies was my thing. But that kind of changed everything for me. I took those two classes and I thought ''I'm going to do my masters.'' Suddenly academia made sense to me. So from then on, I did my masters from Carleton in the same department. I took Digital Media Studies classes because they had a few there. But their classes are very – as opposed to Waterloo – grounded in literature. So there were a lot of reading books and talking about media and I wanted to go somewhere where it is really hands on and hardcore Media Studies. I had a friend who was already going here and I talked to her about it who encouraged me to come. I did my Ph.D. applications and said I need to go to Waterloo, that’s where it is at.

You've done a lot of interesting work in pornography studies. Can you tell me about that?

I guess the thing that was always consistent is that I was always interested in gender and sexuality and how those things intersected. My final project in my senior year poetry class was about Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman. When he lost all his money and rights to that, he did all this fetish art; drawings for dirty magazines and that sort of thing. So for my final project, that I published after, was about "Joe Shuster's lost years.'' That led to me having a real interest in studying pornography specifically. I came to Waterloo actually doing that; looking at the intersections of pornography studies and comics and what happens when you have pornography that takes real bodies out of the equation. That is, when there is no actual people involved except for the person whose drawing it. It was my focus for a really long time.

How did you get involved in the gaming industry?

I got really involved with the Games Institute when I came to Waterloo. I started doing one games project on the side, and then another games project on the side, and so on. And eventually, I had this realization that I cannot keep doing all this. I was in Comic Studies and Pornography Studies and Game Studies and Digital Media Studies and it was just too much. I felt like I needed to either be two feet in Game Studies or not. So I switched out of my whole committee, got a new supervisor and started writing a new dissertation and I just started doing Games Studies. The main thing is that Pornography Studies is this amazing feminist field with this incredible feminist work being done. And as much I enjoyed working in it, I did not feel like it needed me as much as Games Studies did, which is now having its groundbreaking, feminist period, I would say. There is a lot of Games Studies that is focused on the really male-centric games culture. I had this feeling where I felt like Games Studies needs more people like me.

When did you get inspired to found Games Institute Janes?

The Games Institute, itself, is founded through the Social Science Research at Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) which is a big grant that pays for the space and everything that we do. That grant was done by Neil Randall who is my supervisor. I came to him right after he founded the Games Institute. I told him about the problem the industry has and the need to make it clear that the Games Institute supports feminist research right off the bat. That’s where we got the idea for Games Institute Janes. We started holding events, holding games nights for women and the LGBT community. Essentially, we provided a space for marginalized people in the Games Institute to come and play and talk about games and not have to worry about the insidious, nasty parts of games and culture. 

What do you hope to accomplish through the completion of your Ph.D.?

That’s a really good question! I don’t exactly know the answer to that. Because of the way academia is moving and the way the academic job market is, we’re kind of in the position where for every person that gets a Ph.D., there's at most 1 job for every 20 of us. Part of what I’ve been trying to do while I'm doing my Ph.D. is to practice being a professor-- and hopefully be a good professor. I'm also trying to train myself in other fields. I’m currently the Editor in Chief of First Person Scholar which is the academic publication we run out of the Games Institute. I'm hoping that my experience working in publishing and editing and running a team of 18 people will hopefully help me get a job in publishing or in the games industry if I can’t get a more academic job.

Introduction to Digital Media is a great class! Was it your first time teaching one?

I’ve taught Introduction to Canadian Literature, Academic Writing, and Business Writing before. But this is the first time I've had control of what’s on the syllabus and what the assignments are, even though it's not my first time teaching. So that’s really nice. It’s really nice controlling every little detail. I liked teaching the other classes, but this is the one that’s right up my alley.

What has been the most rewarding part of your Ph.D.?

I think working at First Person Scholar is definitely the most rewarding thing I’ve done. When Steve, the old Editor in Chief, first asked me to join, it was a group of a couple of guys who had this idea of running this Games Studies publication. And then they started to turn it into something bigger. It started to pick up speed and Steve knew that I was doing GI Janes. He said we need more of this influence on the publication. And so he asked me to be a part of it. At first I was there as an editor, then I took over one section of the website and then eventually I became Editor in Chief. Just seeing the site grow and getting different authors, I really respect to write for it and by seeing that it hopefully has an impact on how people think about games, academically and in gender studies, that’s been really rewarding. I recently went to a conference in Toronto called Feminists in Games where I got to meet a lot of people I've been idolizing throughout this process. A lot of people have already heard of First Person Scholar, which was a really good feeling. With all the games websites that are out there and doing some really traditional stuff, we are doing something different and people actually like it.

And what has been the most challenging process?

I would say the most challenging part has also been working on The First Person Scholar (FPS). I wouldn’t have needed to form the GI Janes and shout out to feminism in FPS if I felt like those things weren’t needed. So I do think that games studies and games culture has a very insidious and problematic history of sexism. I've encountered that left, right and center my whole life. It has been really challenging to deal with that and also to take it seriously. I have these moments once in a while where I think ''it’s just games. Why is it so serious? Why does it have to be taken so seriously?'' But at the same time, no one would say that about the film industry or any other industry. It's really challenging to work in games and be in games culture and be in the games industry: to deal with people you don’t know and the strangers who think you shouldn’t be part of the games industry. That’s been really challenging but in a weird way that kind of keeps me going. Every time someone hates that I'm here, it makes me realize that I have to be here.

Have you always been into gaming?

I’ve been gaming ever since I had memories. My earliest memories are of me playing Pitfall and putting blank discs into my Commodore 64 just to see what was on them. I played with my brother and so the weird thing is gaming has always been a lifelong hobby of mine and it’s something that I've always been into. I never thought I could make a career out of. I find that really interesting because for as long as I can remember, people have been telling my brother that he should be working in games and making games but even though we did the hobby together. No one ever suggested that to me. Maybe because they were trying to protect me, I'm not really sure. For as long as I can remember games have been that thing that I love. Gaming is definitely not a new thing for me, but taking gaming seriously as a job is a very new thing for me. It's interesting moving from the space of a fan to being a critic. I think it has led me to play a lot of games that I wouldn’t have played otherwise.

You get to play games all the time then! Do you ever feel like you’re working?

All the time. It's actually interesting; a lot of the research I'm doing right now for an article I'm working on is 'when play stops.' That's when you are participating in play and when you're not, and when does play become work. It's something I think about all the time. Sometimes I'm playing a game and its work – I'm doing research. But sometimes it becomes play anyway. Sometimes it's not.  I wouldn’t recommend this if it were not for the fact that analyzing things and really thinking about things is really enjoyable for you. Really tearing things apart and why things are happening is part of what makes playing games and watching movies and watching TV enjoyable for me. Thinking too much ruins it for a lot of people. But for me, there's something playful about it. It's kind of fun.

What advice do you have for young female gamers looking to break into the industry?

Do it. But know your support system. Seek out other like-minded people and women who are supportive of women in the games industry. But it's also difficult for women to have a presence in writing about games in journalism. I definitely think we need more women working in the games industry. We need more women writing about games. But make sure you identify who your support network can be and who understands you. Reach out to people you admire and talk to them and go to them for advice. You will need those people. It sucks that you need those people. But you will. I feel like that’s better advice than ‘don’t do it because it's too scary and horrible.' I do think that we do need to do it. However, it's difficult and that’s a problem. The other thing I think I would say is if you don’t feel afraid to quit or to say no, I think there's a lot of pressure on women in the games industry to stay. It is a dangerous place and when women don't want to do it anymore, people often say, ''no you can't do that, you have to say, you're so important!'' Sometimes I need someone to say, ''it's okay if you need to leave. Just to say yeah your presence is needed but if it gets really bad you don’t have to be here.''