Gaming is big business. Revolutionised by recent advances in mobile technology, video games have now become a central part of the entertainment industry. Last year, the UK was the fifth largest video game market in terms of consumer revenues (after China, USA, Japan and Germany). Approximately 32.4 million people in the UK play video games – be it on console, smart device, PC, VR headset or online – and the UK consumer spend on games was valued at a record £4.33 billion in 2016 (according to the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment).
With gaming now firmly established within popular culture, it has also unsurprisingly become an area of increasing academic interest. Inspire met Dr Alan Meades, Principal Lecturer in the School of Media, Art and Design, to discuss his interest in gaming and arcade culture and how this has impacted on his research and led to the creation of a new Games Design degree course at Christ Church.
Dr Alan Meades
Alan reveals that his love of games has its roots in his childhood: “Games have been part of my life from the very beginning. I grew up in Broadstairs and, as a child, spent my spare time in the arcades. Arcades were the place to go to, the place to hang out in, and best of all, you had the chance to see brand new games as they arrived from Japan and America. It was very exciting.
“But at the same time, there was the explosion in UK-centric home computing with the likes of BBC Micro, the ZX Spectrum 48k and Commodore 64. As you can imagine, I had practically every games system that appeared in the UK. However, instead of seeing games just as entertainment, I saw them – and still do – as culturally important. Games were one of the main subjects that my friends would talk about; we were surrounded by them, at home and in the arcade. It wasn’t just about entertainment – games were central to our identities and ways of living.”
“Instead of seeing games just as entertainment, I saw them –
and still do – as culturally important... games were central to our identities and ways of living.”
Following the completion of an undergraduate degree in Interactive Arts from Manchester Metropolitan University, Alan came to Christ Church initially as a technician for the Digital Media programme. The University then funded Alan’s MA by Research studies at Middlesex University in Electronic Arts. He studied Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), specifically looking at perceptions of cultural difference and the ways that national identity was acted out in the virtual communities: “This was something that was really interesting to me – the idea of national identity as projected through a bunch of pixels and arbitrary behaviours. I conducted a survey, which included responses from over 9,000 people around the world and was translated into lots of different languages. It became the largest study of its kind at the time, and while I was working as a technician here I was being interviewed by the Japanese and American gaming press – they made quite a big deal about it.
“ The Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University heard about my project and invited me to be a speaker at the State of Play conference at New York University in 2005. It was one of the first modern games studies conferences and that’s where it all began. I spoke at this enormous prestigious conference and when I returned I knew that I wanted to become an academic at Christ Church.”
Following this academic breakthrough, Alan went on to complete a PhD researching player communities in computer games. His thesis was an ethnographic study of unconventional player groups and their often-damaging behaviour and activities. In particular, he examined ‘counterplay’ – antisocial and oppositional play forms, such as cheating, player harassment (‘griefing’), the use of exploits (‘glitching’), illicit game modifications (‘modding’) and system hacking. It would later be updated and published as a book by Routledge. Alan's research in this area led him to be contacted by the magazine Wired for a major feature on a Canadian hacker and he has also developed a parallel career as a filmmaker, digital artist and designer.
Alan’s research interests have now returned to his childhood roots, and he is focusing on video games and the behaviour of players in amusement arcades. As he explains: “My current research project is called Arcade Tales, an attempt to tell the up-until-now unheard story of the origins, development and cultural significance of the British arcades. While some American-centric games histories exist, there are none that present a British perspective. The work combines cultural studies, oral history work and comic book creation. In essence, I’m writing a social history of the British arcade, highlighting the cultural importance that amusement arcades had upon youth culture throughout the 1960s to the present day, and to capture stories, histories and ‘arcade tales’ before they are lost forever.
“I’m writing a social history of the British arcade, highlighting the cultural importance that amusement arcades had upon youth culture, and to capture stories, histories and ‘arcade tales’ before they are lost forever.”
“Two years ago, through work that one of our Photography students, Shaun Vincent, had been doing in Herne Bay arcades, SEAS Photography obtained the George Wilson archive of arcade photography. This is a collection of over 450 documentary photographs depicting life and culture inside the Herne Bay arcades in the 1980s. The archive is particularly important because these type of visual records are very rare; the only other similar archive is held by Stanford University in the States. What I’m trying to achieve with my research is to give a voice to communities that have been largely ignored or marginalised. The arcades are really based on a travelling showman community. Their origins stretch back to the middle ages and the history is of travelling shows and travelling fairs, which mutated over the centuries into the fixed locations of the arcades. While most people might say the arcades aren’t important because they are perceived as low culture, the aim of my research is to show that they do matter, they always have and there are valuable stories to be told.
“Where possible, I am also collating oral histories from British arcades. So my research is examining how these arcades were developed, who the key players were, what the British history of innovation is and then, on the flip side, the people’s stories – why the arcades matter to them. But I find it really interesting that this is a community that is central to a long history of entertainment culture yet we know very little about it.”
Alan's work on arcades in the UK has also been picked up by scholars in the United States and he was invited to speak on his research at the prestigious Stanford University, which houses a similar photographic archive to George Wilson’s. His talk explored the differences between British and North American play cultures and his Arcade Tales project. It was well received and has led to further opportunities for collaborative research.
Alan is now working with BACTA, which is the largest trade association in the gaming arena and acts as the voice of the British amusement industry, representing all divisions from large manufacturers through to small seaside arcades. It aims to improve the image of the industry, encourage good practice and create an optimal trading environment for all sectors. Alan spoke at their general conference in Westminster and is involved with their trade shows and public engagement: “Working with BACTA and talking with arcade owners, game manufacturers and distributors is an absolute pleasure. I’ve found the industry enormously welcoming and the more I talk with them, it’s evident that there’s an important story about British culture that needs to be told. I feel grateful to be in the position to help do that.”
A new Games Design degree course
Despite his extensive research on gaming, Alan’s work at Christ Church has focused on Graphic Design and Web Design, programmes that he wrote and then directed for more than a decade. Alan has now developed a new Games Design degree course at Christ Church, which will welcome its first intake of students in September. The course was designed with a particular segment of the games market in mind: “Interestingly, many of the existing games design programmes focus on triple A, high-end games – the equivalent of Hollywood games production – and while there is student demand for these, the employment options are limited. However, alongside the small, highly competitive triple-A games industry, there is a booming indie games scene, particularly in the UK, where small start-up companies produce games in their own studio for mobiles, Steam, Xbox or PlayStation.
“The Games Design degree programme I’ve developed approaches games from a holistic stance. It recognises that games really matter culturally and are one of the ways in which we understand the world and communicate with each other.”
“The degree programme I’ve developed approaches games from a holistic stance. It recognises that games really matter culturally and are one of the ways in which we understand the world and communicate with each other. Equally, people use games as a mode of expression – instead of drawing or writing, they create games. It recognises that games are economically, socially and culturally important. The course also supports people who want to make games but lack the traditional skill set of engineering, maths or physics. We’ll teach our students how to use games design tools for the indie market, to work together producing all kinds of games, understand their cultural and economic significance, but also the very many ways that games design is valued beyond the games industry. In addition to indie games, there are many other ancillary professions that the course supports, such as education, tourism, marketing and advertising.”
Students on the Games Design course will benefit from being located in the University’s new Arts building with its state-of-the-art facilities and resources, its strong technological infrastructure and its flexible working environment. Alan is also exploring ways in which to collaborate with independent games developers in Kent to create opportunities for work experience and placements for students. He has successfully forged relationships with Canterbury Anifest (curated and run by fellow academics within the School of Media, Art and Design), GEEK (Games Expo East Kent), an annual retro-gaming festival, and also with Dreamland, Margate, where he was researcher in residence for a spell. He is also keen to internationalise the curriculum wherever possible and is exploring connections with other institutions around the world. Alan says that “games design, perhaps more than any other creative discipline, is international in its vision and operation. Design teams often span nationalities and the games are designed for and sold to international audiences, so it’s important that our students understand this”. Such partnerships will create valuable opportunities and networks for Games Design students.
Alan remains enthusiastic about gaming and games culture, and is excited about the opportunities it offers within a currently thriving entertainment industry. He is particularly delighted that what started as a childhood passion has become an adult vocation: “My personal interests, my teaching and my research in games and arcade culture are all now coming together – it feels like everything has finally come full circle. And who knows, perhaps one day we’ll be able to set up a small arcade on the campus!”
Find out more about the Games Design degree course at Christ Church.
For further information on Alan’s Arcade Tales research project, visit the website.
Herne Bay Arcade images © George Wilson. Reproduced by kind permission of SEAS Photography.