About Mia Consalvo, Ph.D.: Mia Consalvo is Professor of Communication Studies and Canada Research Chair in Game Studies & Design at Concordia University in Montreal. An influential scholar of video games and gaming culture, Dr. Consalvo is the author of four books, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Players and their Pets: Gaming Communities from Beta to Sunset, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts and, most recently, Real Games: What’s Legitimate and What’s Not In Contemporary Videogames. Her forthcoming book explores microstreaming.
Dr. Consalvo’s essays and book chapters have appeared in publications like The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Feminism, and journals like Game Studies, New Media + Society, and Critical Studies in Media Communication. At Concordia, Dr. Consalvo directs the videogame research and design initiative mLab. Among other accolades, she has earned a Lifetime Membership Award for Service from the Association of Internet Researchers.
Dr. Consalvo received her Ph.D. in Mass Communications from the University of Iowa, her M.A. in Communications from the University of Washington and her B.S. in Communication Arts and Sciences from Lyndon State College in Vermont. Prior to her time at Concordia, Dr. Consalvo held positions at a number of institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ohio University, and was Kohei Miura Visiting Professor at Chubu University in Japan.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in media studies and game studies and, in particular, begin to critically investigate the diverse social and cultural practices of video game audiences?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] My undergraduate degree is in video production. I went to a small school in Vermont where we created a news show. I did videography, directing, and editing for the show. With editing you can make people say what you want them to say or cut out interesting or valuable context. It was at that point that I realized the power of media.
I began studying new media in graduate school with the rise of NetScape and the graphical web. It was interesting watching people adapt and use these technologies in cool ways. Then it was another leap, skip, and a jump to videogames. I have been lucky, in that I am always interested in something new that is happening, and my career has allowed me to pursue those interests as they have evolved. They never stop changing, so I have just gone from one interesting project to the next.
It usually comes back to new media forms, what people are doing, and how they make sense of them — how they might bend, warp, and twist them, or object to them, but also how they can be deep and meaningful to people. This is true even of cultural forms that get denigrated or looked down on by some people.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your scholarship on games and gaming brings together qualitative methodologies like ethnography with critical perspectives on the politics of gender, globalization, class, and labor. For those of our readers who may be less familiar with game studies, could you introduce us to how you approach video games as an object of study? How does your work employ critical and qualitative perspectives to tackle issues as diverse as game engine design and audience reception?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] There has been research on videogames for as long as there have been videogames, which actually goes back to the 1960s and 1970s. But a lot of that early work, especially in the 1980s and even in the 1990s, was done by psychologists, and child psychologists, as well as sociologists — people who were really worried about what videogames were doing to the kids. Around 2000 things started to shift and you saw a change in how games were studied. There are still the child psychologists, but there is also an acknowledgement that games are much more broad than that: that adults play games, that they are an important part of culture.
Games do not just reflect culture. They do not just take on different cultural forms or remix them. They are a form of culture themself. That is when I became interested in studying them. As a cultural form, you can think about how games are reflective of aspects of people’s identities. Are the characters reflective of traditional societal norms? Are they breaking or reinforcing stereotypes? Are they representing different national cultures in interesting or reductive ways? These questions guide some of the ways that scholars have approached games.
Other scholarship examines the game industry itself and its rise, from historical looks at companies like Nintendo and Sony to the inclusion of Microsoft with the Xbox. There is generally this sense of consoles leading the history of games, but contemporary research on games gives us different national and cultural looks at the history of games. For example, in the UK, PCs were much more popular than consoles were, so they have a very PC-centric history of gaming.
In Korea, there’s also a lot more PC-related history because consoles were banned because they came from Japan. The cultural history between Korea and Japan produces a really different sense of what is acceptable and what is not. Now you are seeing these different histories of gaming and the game industry, and the console is not the central important object. There are lots of different important objects of study that come from different places.
You are also seeing a lot of consolidation across the industry now. Companies like Tencent, the Chinese giant, are buying firms and developers whole. Even companies you do not think of as game developers like Apple control a huge part of the market because they own the AppStore and get to decide what they will or will not allow for game sales. This has led to lots of different questions being asked about what gets made, what is an audience, and how you appeal to that audience.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One important thread in your recent research is your work on live-streaming. You have authored a number of publications on the streaming platform Twitch, which explore not only video game streamers, but the streaming practices of game developers and artists as well.
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] My work in this area started as a question. When Twitch was getting popular, I wanted to understand why people would watch other people play video games. Why do not you just play the video game yourself? This is a valid question that still comes up.
The easy answer, first, is that lots of people like to watch sports being played on TV and many of those people may never play those sports, or may play a very basic form of them. There are different elements that draw people to the live streaming of games. Some of it can be gameplay. Some of it can be the streamer and their personality, or the community around their channel. You start seeing these whole ecosystems evolving.
One of the key themes in my work on streamers is microstreamers — people who stream to very small audiences. I debate with my coworkers constantly about what that number is. There is no magic number. Definitely less than 100, but is it less than 20? Is it less than ten? There are also people who stream to nobody. We were interested in who these folks were and why they were streaming. Did they have any interest in becoming the next “Ninja” — the next big, popular streamer, or not?
We have been doing multiple-method research on this for five or six years now. We watched a bunch of these streamers, and we did over forty in-depth interviews. We did a survey of those same streamers a year later. We tried livestreaming ourselves and analyzed streams we watched. We really did a deep dive. I think a lot of the discussion in the popular media goes back to doing this to make money, doing this to be famous, and treating it as part of creator culture. It is often treated as labor. Even if you are not going to make a living, the perception is you are doing it to make money.
It can certainly be a lot of work, but the vast majority of people who stream on Twitch do not actually make money. They may not make any, or they may only make an amount that is so small it is almost nothing. They are doing it for different reasons: sometimes for the enjoyment of playing and sharing particular games with others who find it interesting. They may enjoy fiddling with the technology or trying to get a stream that is technologically sophisticated. It may be a group of friends who know each other and stream as a way to play together and bring in their non-playing friends to chat with them. There is almost as many reasons as there are streamers.
We found this with research on non-gamers like game developers, artists, and cosplayers. One of the people I talked to, who was streaming as part of a collective playing games, told me he started streaming when he was writing his dissertation. He streamed himself writing his dissertation. He said it was a way to be accountable. He promised the audience and himself that he would write for a certain period of time on Twitch as a way of making sure he showed up.
You see this with some of the game developers too. Interestingly, the student writing his dissertation said he had to stop because so many friends were watching, chatting, asking questions, and making comments that he was not getting the work done. He had to go offline [laughs].
There are many more reasons to stream than making money, and my research has aimed to tease out these different ways of relating to streaming. I think there is a desire for some connection that people are looking for. It just doesn’t have to be the huge, stadium-sized, “I love you” connection. It can be as simple as, “Hey, you’re playing that game too. I really like that game.” It could be that I start chatting with a woman who streams, she introduces me to a game, we make friends, and now I watch whatever she is doing whenever I have free time.
Some of the folks I talked to mentioned they had just moved to a new area and did not really know anybody locally, and this was a way to try to be social and make friends. I think there is still that desire for human connection for microstreamers and this comes with it being a live medium. It is not making a “Let’s Play,” putting it up on YouTube and hoping for comments. It is the actual people watching maybe interacting with the streamer. The popularity of streaming also really jumped during the pandemic because it was a great way to connect when you could not see people in other ways.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is Real Games: What’s Legitimate and What’s Not in Contemporary Videogames, which you co-authored with Christopher A. Paul. In it, you consider the discourse around “real” and “not-real” games that emerged alongside digital games like Farmville. Could you introduce this discourse on the “reality” of games you trace in this book and its significance for understanding our contemporary media landscape? How does your book assess the enduring cultural influence of these games disparaged as “not-real”?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] Chris and I had a fun time writing that book. It started out as a conference paper and just kept going. Eventually we realized, “I guess there’s a book here,” because we had so much to say about it. The debate over what is and is not a real game has been going on for a while now. Part of it is gatekeeping. You saw this with the rise of game culture and even going back to the early Nintendo with questions of who gets to play the Nintendo, who gets it in their bedroom, whom it is marketed to. That leads to a certain sense of exclusivity surrounding who “gets” game culture.
With the iPhone and the AppStore you see a widening of markets for games and their accessibility. Before that, you needed a specialized piece of technology to play a game — you needed an Atari, or you needed a PlayStation, or you needed a GameCube. This created barriers of access to people with a passing interest or curiosity about games.
People were not often going to say, “Hey, I think I might be interested in games, I am going to spend $300 on an Xbox and $50 on a game to see if I enjoy this.” Then, suddenly, if you have a phone, you can try a game that is two dollars or free. It becomes easier to say, “Oh, I’ll give this a shot.” Similarly, in 2009, you had Farmville appear on Facebook, which was free-to-play. This got a lot of new people into playing games and drew interest from people who used to play when they were kids and stopped.
This leads to this kind of gatekeeping where “gamers” are suddenly saying, “Wait a minute. This is our space.” They are, of course, not the only people to do this — you can look at the Star Wars Fandom, or comics, or other areas of popular culture and see something similar going on where certain groups are saying, “That’s not a real part of our system or culture.”
In the book, we tried to map out the elements that qualified or disqualified something as a “real game” in these discourses. With Farmville, it was the platform that it was on. Being on Facebook made it immediately suspicious.
We found the “realness” of mobile games was frequently contested. Farmville was also free to play, and payment systems became an important criteria in this discourse. You cannot say paying $50 for a game has been a consistent way to mark it as “real.” Pong, Space Invaders, and Pacman were all games you put tokens into. There are many different payment models that follow certain phases in the industry. You see this with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games), which are subscription based. There is not one payment system to rule them all. It is just a way to make a quick and easy delineation of real/not real that lets people say, “Get out of my club.”
In addition to the payment system and the platform, the developer can also be brought into question. So can the genre. For example, walking simulators raised questions of whether to be real you had to have a timer, or a score, or lives. This is all subject to change, though. In five or ten years, we might be arguing over whether new kinds of games are real or not.
It is just a way to keep the clubhouse exclusive to certain people, because some people believe it is a zero-sum game. They act as if studios make games for certain groups of people, it means they are not making games for them. So far, though, we have seen that there are still plenty of these games; they are still making new Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2019, you published the book chapter “Why We Need Feminist Game Studies,” which extends a long-term commitment of your work to critical engagement with gender in gaming. That same year you began a grant-funded project exploring the significance of class to video games. Would you put these areas of your research in conversation to discuss what you see as the importance of critical perspectives focused on gender and class in game studies today?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] Both gender and class are important elements in understanding games. You see the need for feminist game studies come up again and again. It is not as if the sexism surrounding the industry is over — if anything, it seems to have become stronger, more strident, more in-your-face. I think this might be because of some of the success of feminist approaches, or developers understanding they could have larger audiences if they made games for women or different types of people. You also see women in more leadership roles in the industry, pushing different types of games or new directions for existing genres. I think that is just continually going to be there.
In terms of class, I had noticed that class often comes last. Race, gender and class; gender, race, and class; it is always the “and.” I thought there had to be something interesting to say about class and games. We are now in the final stage of the four-year study and I think part of the challenge is that it is so difficult to define class. Class is so much more than income — there is social capital, cultural capital, where you went to school, whom you know, the neighborhood you live in. It is more than just that you have money or you do not.
We did some studies of games to see how class is reflected in games themselves. We looked a bit at the industry, and right now we are beginning our interviews with players. It has been super interesting to try to put class first, and it is difficult because immediately it is clear that elements of class are entangled with race or with gender. Yet, we have been trying to draw an artificial separation so that we can see how this particular variable matters, because it does.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there important ways that your work on feminism and game studies shapes your thinking on issues of class or that your more recent engagements with class have shaped your approach to feminist game studies?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] As an example, last year I did a presentation on the mobile games Sally’s Spa and Sally’s Salon. They are kind of like the Diner Dash games, where you play as a woman who owns a little business and you have to serve customers and keep them happy to clear the levels and advance. I was interested in Sally’s Salon in particular for what it said about class and gender.
As it turns out, being a hairdresser is usually a class specific job. I found a really interesting study a woman did of real-life hair stylists. She did an ethnography where she hung out in hair salons for a year or two to examine how hair stylists constructed themselves as professionals and related to their clients, who were usually of a higher social status than they were.
She talks about the difficulties that they had because they wanted to construct themselves as experts – you do not want to go to a stylist who does not know what they are doing – but, at the same time, you have to keep them happy because it is a service-based job. You cannot say, “That hairstyle will look terrible on you,” or “that’s a really dumb idea for a haircut,” even if it is. You have to work with what you have, so you have to manage emotions and manage the relationship. Even if you are in a position of authority with respect to expertise, class wise you are in a subordinate position.
I found that in the game itself, a lot of this was reflected. It totally wiped out any kind of agency for the hairstylist as an expert. People come in, people tell you what they want, and you have to do it as quickly as possible to make them happy. In that way you can see how gender was linked to the affective labor of keeping people happy, the gendered notion of care and managing emotions, and how that intersected with the class function of the job. It showed how difficult those were to pull apart, but I feel like bringing in the class analysis also leant it more precision than if I were to just look at gender.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At Concordia University you direct the mLab, a gameplay research lab, and you have also worked on a number of game design projects. Would you introduce us to your work with the mLab and as a game designer?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] The mLab has PCs, games, and consoles, that allow us to work on game production as well as conducting research on play. We have different projects led by different Research Assistants (RAs). When we were studying tandem play — looking at how people play single player games together — we had people come in and play in pairs, and we would watch them play and observe and write about them here. We do interviews here as well.
Right now with a different group of RAs, we are starting another project on games where you are a cult leader, and we have a PC here with those games on it so people can play them and write about them. It is really just a space for us to work on projects, and students also work on their own theses, dissertations, or media production projects. A few years back, we had students launch a podcast. You can learn more about it at miaconsalvo.com.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there unique contributions or exciting new directions from this research and design work that you would highlight?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] As part of the class and games project, something we had not planned on doing, but ended up working on because the project ran during the pandemic, was designing a game. The game was about being an essential worker during the pandemic. If you remember during the beginning of the initial lockdown, suddenly if you worked from home you had to stay home, but essential workers had to go in.
This led to a discussion about who is an essential worker: of course, that meant doctors, nurses, and firefighters, but grocery store clerks and healthcare workers at nursing homes were also considered essential workers. For the last two categories, in particular, these are not people who make a lot of money, they are not people who generally receive a lot of respect for their profession, and they may not even have full time jobs. Being an essential worker in a financially precarious situation meant you had to go to work when other people were staying home.
We created the game It Comes in Waves (https://miaconsalvo.itch.io/waves) to help explore what it might be like to be a healthcare worker working at two different nursing homes over the first few months of the pandemic. It was trying to bring out those class aspects and to be faithful to the experiences of healthcare workers even though we were not healthcare workers ourselves.
At the same time, we did not want it to turn into a trauma simulator. It was important and interesting work, and it showed how difficult class can be to represent. What does it mean to build that into the game itself? We ended up portraying the main character, Beattie, as having a roommate because she cannot afford to live alone. The game describes how your character is worried because your roommate is going over to her boyfriend’s house to spend the night even though you are supposed to be isolating. You are afraid to ask her to stop because you need her to help pay the rent. While I do not know if we fully succeeded, the game introduces some of these different elements that might go into constructing a world where social class is thought of differently.
It’s a Twine game [an open-source programming tool for creating interactive narratives], so it is a choice-based narrative. It covers four days starting in January 2020, and then moves forward in time every couple of months as things are shifting. You start working at two different facilities, and you have the choice to take a day off, which shifts the events that take place.
When working with the residents, you have the choice to admonish them for being out of their rooms or to console them. There is one character you can talk to a lot and, during your next visit you find that his room is empty and learn he got COVID and is in the hospital, which makes you worry about whether you were exposed. Your parents urge you to move back in with them, which would save you money, but you would run the risk of exposing them.
It is lots of tiny choices. There is no major, big moral choice, and that is what we were trying to model — all of the things that, as an essential worker, you would have to think about during the day. It represents how class enters into our decision-making at many different levels, and also informs our relationship to place. You take the bus to work because you do not have a car, so you worry about exposure, but you have to do it. Being precarious means you have to live in an apartment, so you do not have your own private entrance and have to worry about your roommate’s social life. We also represent how luck enters into it — how your friend who works at Starbucks can stay out of work longer because their store stays closed.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you might give to those who are interested in perspectives in game studies or media studies more broadly who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Mia Consalvo] Game studies is an interesting and exciting field that is always changing, but I find that my roots in communication and media and technology studies are the foundation for it all. My Ph.D. is in Mass Communication. I read the Frankfurt School — Adorno and Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin — and thinkers in British cultural studies like Stuart Hall. I still go back to all of that when I think about games, players, and active audiences.
You definitely need some specialized knowledge to study games, and there is more and more being written every day, but it is not the weird, alien planet some people treat it as. People say, “I don’t know anything about games!” Yes, you do. You probably have Candy Crush on your phone, or know something about interactive media, or resistant audiences, or active audiences, and I think the more we can bring games into how we understand media more generally, the better off both game studies and media studies will be. There is a lot of overlap and commonality, and you see this even with the ways the industries are evolving. They are coming together, and so we need to bring together the ways we study them.
If you always want something new and different, game studies is for you. I am never bored with what I am studying. Even if you think you are terrible at games, there is something out there for you.
Thank you, Dr. Consalvo, for sharing your insight on game studies, live streaming, game design, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.