Game Design & Game Studies: Building Bridges between the Industry and Academia

Research on games and game design lacks dialogue between those who make games and those who study games and game design as a profession. I’m hardly the first researcher to make this observation, I’m sure, and I’m certain a similar disconnect is present for researchers within other areas of media studies, such film production and criticism. Still, it’s a big challenge to overcome, and one hurdle I hope to see diminish with time, for the academics who study games and hope to instill some kind of positive change.

It’s easy to see where this weak relationship stems. Since the introduction of violent games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom in the early 1990s the medium has stirred an ongoing debate about graphic interactive content and potential negative effects on players, particularly youths. Unsurprisingly, many industry professionals harbor a general distrust towards academics given the breadth of media effects research which links violent and aggressive outcomes to video game players. Additionally, communication, media, and gender scholars have investigated the prominence of sexualized female characters in games and the potential detrimental effects associated with exposure to such stereotypes within interactive and virtual environments. Industry professionals may perceive such scrutiny on video game effects as attacks on creative work and on the medium as a whole. Yet, both academics and professionals, I think, could benefit from investing more trust and understanding in one another.


Presentation on designing historical video games, International Communication Association 65th Annual Conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico (May 2015).

Academics, in conversation with game designers and producers, could be made aware of the variety of constraints and other factors which influence creation of game content. For instance, studios may have a financial incentive to continue production of stereotypes in games over time if such representations have proven financially successfully in the past. This may also place some accountability on game consumers and not just the studios who market and make games, which might even be a source of frustration to some creatives who want to diversify content yet are limited by financial pressures to conform with money-making formulas. Additionally, game developers might reflect upon such constraints from a more critical context in conversation with researchers who are concerned about game content and advocate for more variety in design.

Academic publications on video game content and effects often end with a generic ‘call to action’ – that designers should make content less violent and more diverse; that the Entertainment Software Association should create more nuanced and varied ratings to inform families of inappropriate content. Such statements have the best intentions for players and families but, in the echo chamber that is a paper’s “Recommendations and Conclusion” section, somewhat lack sincerity and genuine passion. Games research which makes suggestions in consideration of designers, developers, and the industry as a business might actually have more impact than research that lacks the perspectives of designers and creatives.


An aca-gamer conducting serious research.

Why this post, why now? Because I’m currently attempting such a study and I’m running into a few road blocks. I’m seeking interviews with professionals in the game industry who have worked on character design and, while I’ve had several fantastic and articulate people reach out and speak with me so far, I’ll need to hear from more voices in order to have a more representative collection of insights for the complete study. I hope that such a study, as well as others, might strengthen the dialogue between game researchers and academics and improve the quality and scope of games for all.

Please feel free to share the below study information.

Video Game Character Design Study

If you have worked on a video game development team you are invited to participate in a short interview that will investigate the process and decision-making behind character conceptualization and video game design. As you may be aware, video game content has been scrutinized by both the public and academics alike with little consideration of the industry’s perspective. This study seeks to understand the design process from the practical and economic considerations of the industry in order to balance out the academic research that has overlooked these factors.

The interviews will be conducted by Jessica Tompkins (Ph.D. student) and Dr. Nicole Martins of the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jessica and Nicole have previously conducted research on video games and Jess herself is an avid gamer. Participation involves a single interview via Skype or phone. All participants will be entered to win one $50 Amazon gift card, the odds of winning dependent on the total number of participants (about 1 in 20 or 1 in 25).

If you are at least 18 years old, have worked on character creation for games, and would like more information about participating, please contact: Jessica Tompkins at or Nicole Martins at

Interviews will last approximately 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Participants will remain anonymous in any papers or presentations that may emerge from this study.

Cosplay Survey Update: Still Seeking Responses!

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Last time I posted to my blog, more than three months ago, I solicited participants for the Cosplay Motivations Questionnaire. I collected nearly 260 ‘hits’ to the online survey but only about 190 participants actually completed the entire questionnaire. By distributing a new link, I hope to collect more information in order to draw more robust conclusions about cosplay and fan identities.

me-jill2If you’ve already taken the survey, I can’t thank you enough. I only encourage you to share the link with fellow cosplayers and explain the importance of finishing an online survey. It’s a challenge to interpret your results when pieces of the puzzle are missing!


Speaking of cosplay, I was Jill Valentine (Resident Evil) for Halloween last year – and I’m slooowly working on a new Star Wars costume. Hooray!


Cosplay Motivations Questionnaire Seeking Participants

The researcher/blogger in cosplay as Jill Valentine from Resident Evil.

The researcher/blogger in cosplay as Jill Valentine from Resident Evil.

If you’ve worn at least one cosplay costume to a fan convention within the past 12 months you are invited to take part in a study that aims to understand the motivations for making and wearing cosplay costumes at fan conventions, available here.

This survey was created by me, Jessica Tompkins, a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Bloomington, in the Media School. I started making and wearing cosplay costumes several years ago and have attended several fan conventions over the past six years. My current academic research focuses on media and identity from a social scientific perspective.

I hope that you will participate in this study as it could be valuable towards understanding how cosplay functions as a subversive practice for identity exploration within fandoms. Your participation will provide insight on motivations for doing cosplay – a fan activity that is often misunderstood by non-fans. Thank you for your time reading this post and I hope that you will complete this brief questionnaire if you meet the qualifications. If you have any questions about the research project please feel free to contact me at jetompki [at] indiana [dot] edu. You may also contact me if you would like a copy of the final report once it is completed.

Please feel free to share the link among your social networks and groups (e.g. cosplay clubs), and if you would like additional information about the study, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you!

“How Has Dynasty Warriors Lasted So Long?” – Might We Ask the Same of Any Repetitive Franchise?

Dynasty Warriors could borrow Soul Calibur’s tagline: “A tale of souls and swords, eternally retold…”

The other day when the brand new Assassin’s Creed game was announced – I couldn’t help but wonder… How is it that the Assassin’s Creed series releases 2 to 3 games a year (in addition to releasing portable spin-off titles) and has yet to crash and burn like the Guitar Hero series? I mean, I enjoyed AC II until it decided to glitch half-way through the story, but the introduction scenario of AC III was so dull (for me) that I haven’t managed to play beyond the first three hours or so…

And then I realize that I don’t have much of an argument because I still play Dynasty Warriors… 

For gamers, I think there’s something especially comforting in a series that’s familiar. Often, repetitive (and fan favorite) series are nostalgic. I know, personally, that when I play a ‘new’ Dynasty Warriors game I feel like I’m 15 again – the age when I started my Warriors journey with Dynasty Warriors 3. I’m reminded of the many happy memories I have with my younger brother, playing the game with our favorite characters at 7:30 A.M. before school started – and playing more rounds of free mode and versus mode after the school day ended – to see who could get the most K.O.s.

I suppose the same is true for other fans – not just of Dynasty Warriors – but also Assassin’s Creed, Final Fantasy, etc. The characters are like old friends; the stories are old memories; and the gameplay is a skill that players have mastered and perfected over time.

 In games studies research, one of the most highly cited concepts regarding video game enjoyment is flow. Sherry (2004) explained that a flow state is achieved in gaming when there is a balance between the difficulty of the given task and the player’s skill. Tasks that are too easy result in boredom and tasks that are too difficult for the player induce anxiety. Fans of a particular series are likely to experience the flow state when they play a new game in the franchise because the gameplay is still familiar enough – but also presented in a different way – to establish a balance between the player’s skill and the difficulty of the given task.

Flow, in addition to nostalgia, may be one way to understand the popularity of repetitive and sequential video games.

But – please – Tecmo-Koei… you do need to revitalize Dynasty Warriors. Flow can only get this series so far.

How Has Dynasty Warriors Lasted So Long? | gamesTM – Official Website.


Sherry, J.L. (2004). Flow and media enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 328–347. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00318.x

Male ‘Nudity’ Plays Against Logic in New Final Fantasy Game


Mevius Final Fantasy’s hero gets a wardrobe change.

I normally don’t follow mobile gaming news – but this caught my attention. The latest promotional video for Mevius Final Fantasy (or Mobius, I’ve seen it translated as both) revealed a wardrobe change for the game’s protagonist, Wal. According to Rocket News 24, Mevius Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase explained that Wal’s new, more conservative attire was requested by fans of the series:


Wal’s original… shirt-thing.

Kitase explains that they’ve since decided to slap a little more fabric over Wal’s hairless canvas of lean muscle mass. “After we released the screenshots in December, we looked at the various reactions we were getting online, and in the end, showing this much skin…”

“It’s kind of sexy…” offers Asuna, the sole female presenter, before adding “A little too sexy.”

Kitase says many people shared Asuna’s sentiment about the revealing peek the developers had given the public back in December. “For this game, we’re moving forward during development and letting it evolve while taking into consideration users’ opinions, so I asked the character designer to make a change.”

Kuja proudly displays what his momma gave him.


The image at the top shows the outcome. Essentially, fabric is now slapped over the rib-cage area of his torso and he no longer looks like he’s wearing an awkward apron… I can’t help but question this decision, though, when I consider other character’s clothing in the series. The Final Fantasy series has never shied from showcasing proactively dressed characters. Final Fantasy IX’s Kuja is sans cloth in the abdominal region and sports a cod piece, to boot. Even serious characters like XIII’s Lightning received the ‘cat girl’ treatment for one of her multitude of costumes in Lightning Returns. Clearly, Wal was not the first ‘flesh-baring’ character featured in the games.

What I wonder is where the criticism of Wal’s original costume was coming from… male or female fans? Kuja’s attire shows that revealing costumes for male characters in Final Fantasy is not without precedent – but, Kuja is FFIX’s villain. He is not the hero of the story and his identity is not assumed by or forced upon the player… a male player, perhaps? Needless to say, I don’t think that Wal’s costume would have received the same criticism if he was actually a she. After all, Square-Enix didn’t shy from this presentation:


… but Wal is ‘too sexy?’

Interestingly, Mevius project leader Naoki Hamaguchi and managing producer Hiroki Okayama expressed a different opinion from Kitase. They expressed:

“But I want that naked outfit,” and “He looks like a model…You can see the body line of his lower back and hips… If enough people say they like those hiplines, then we might bring the original costume back.”

Personally, I’d wish they’d stuck to their guns. It’s not that playing a chiseled Wal entices me as a gamer – but I think if it’s the original vision that was conceived for the character, why deviate from it?

Source: “Too sexy!” New Final Fantasy’s hunky male lead has his revealing costume toned down

Spring Gaming

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Jie Xi, my “create-a-warrior” avatar.

Spring Break this year involved plenty of writing/research but also some much needed gaming. I recently acquire a copy of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires for PlayStation 3 and I immediately jumped into the new create-a-warrior mode. My customized character’s story is the stuff of Mary Sue fan fiction – a European traveler turned mercenary during the Three Kingdoms Period of ancient China. Along with slaying, on average, about 900 peons per battle, she violates all kinds of historical gender and fashion norms – complete with charmingly anachronistic hipster glasses. I’ve been playing this series for over 10 years and I still enjoy the inevitable and increasingly ridiculous sequels.

As a veteran of the Dynasty Warriors series, it’s refreshing to play Empires mode with a customized character in a fairly open-ended narrative after playing the same story several times with the same cast of characters across the core games and the spin-offs. I haven’t actually played the core version of Dynasty Warriors 8 or Xtreme Legends – but honestly? I don’t feel like I have to because I’ve “been there, done that” since Dynasty Warriors 3. The last core Dynasty Warriors game that I played was DW7 and prior to playing DW8:E, I also tried DW4:E and DW6:E. I loved DW4:E but DW6 was lacking. I don’t think I ever finished it (thankfully, it was gift). Surprisingly, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires feels the most tactical the series has in a long time… perhaps, ever.

I particularly like that musou attacks are more varied, requiring different combinations of buttons to perform variations of the flashy but fatal attack. Evidently, Dynasty Warriors 8 took the best additions from all of the sequels and crammed them into one installment. Rage attacks from DW5; tomes a la DW6 are now strategems; and EX attacks from the seventh installment also return. Overall, the combat feels more dynamic then ever. I don’t think I want to play every single game in this series – but it’s certainly nostalgic returning to the Three Kingdoms era once again.

Even if I don’t understand why every one is praising me in Japanese.