Meet Natalie Walschots, the PhD student deep-diving into Gamergate

It’s one thing to be a player of video games; it’s another thing entirely to be someone who studies them. That’s exactly what Natalie Walschots is doing.

The self-described “promiscuous wordsmith,” journalist and critic is currently attending Concordia University in Montreal, where her studies are focused on video gaming through a feminist lens and gamer culture as a whole. In short, this is a real-life level up!

Walschots has had to deal with a lot of criticism and backlash via the Internet, but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing what she’s truly passionate about. HelloGiggles was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chat with Walschots about her decision to study video games, her favorite games growing up and her advice to girls who want to pick up a controller themselves.

HG: When did your love of gaming start? What’s the first game you remember loving?
NW: I’ve been gaming since I was quite a little kid — when I was six or seven, we got a Nintendo at home, and played Dr. Mario and Castlevania with the kind of complete obsession that only small children possess.  Then, for Christmas when I was eight or nine, my brother and I got a SNES, and I think that is when my love truly, deeply took root and became a life-long thing. I remember playing Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past with my brother for seriously a year and a half without a guide or walkthrough, finding every single secret and item and just exploring. (I wrote a bit about it in this piece.) There was never a time in my life after that when I didn’t consider myself a gamer.

HG: What made you decide to get your PhD in gaming? What does that entail exactly and what has the experience been like?

NW: So technically I am in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia. I have three advisors, who are part of the departments of English, sociology, and communications respectively. I have decided to focus on feminist criticism of games and gamer culture because it is something I am deeply passionate about, and this particular program gives me both the freedom and the multi-platform tools to explore it from several different angles. It’s an intensive, five-year degree, which means two years of coursework, a year of comprehensive exams, half a year doing a thesis proposal and a year and a half writing and defending the dissertation. I’m just one year in!

So far the experience has been phenomenal. I work out of the TAG and Ampersand laboratories, which was incredible collaborative spaces filled with brilliant people. I’ve had the opportunity to help build a game about sex work law in Canada; present conference papers on the need for diverse player characters, and Women in Refrigerators, and poems I have written in Bloodborne; and contributed to a book chapter on necrophilia in death metal. If I was going to go back and do a PhD (I earned my MA seven years before I went back to start my doctorate) it was going to be somewhere weird and fantastic. I feel like I have found exactly that space here.

HG: What do you think video games achieve that is unique to that medium? 

NW: Games are able to do a lot of things that other art forms don’t. One of the key things is something that Chuck Klosterman has called “the significance of potentiality.” By which he means: games aren’t static. Unlike a text or a film, every play-through of a game is a unique experience, where events can occur in a different order or different way as players make choices; the more open the world, the more possibilities, but even in relatively straightforward and linear games, every experience is still distinct. This presents unique challenges for criticism, as you’re approaching a medium that changes with every encounter. It’s really quite wonderful, but it makes it challenging to pin games down and write about them. Also, encountering a game becomes much more personal, from a critical standpoint, because you’re talking about your individual experience of a game.

Speaking of personal, another way in which games are different is how immersive they are and how much a player is asked to identify with a player character or avatar. You’re not just watching someone or reading about them, but making choices and actions for them, inhabiting their agency. This is an incredibly powerful narrative tool.

HG: Why do you think gaming is an arena that deals with SO much sexism? 

NW: I think that gaming culture is similar to a lot of subcultures that are typically not thought of as spaces for women, such as aggressive music, sports, comics and science fiction. I’m honestly not sure I would say that there is more or less sexism in, say, heavy metal or MMA than their is in games. What’s different about the atmosphere in gaming is less the presence of sexism so much as it’s virulence, intensity, and the light being shone on it now. It’s also organized in a way that I can’t think of a parallel for, in the form of Gamergate. It’s not that there is more, it’s that it is focussed.

HG: What advice would you give to a girl who is interested in gaming but either thinks “it’s a guy thing” or is actually afraid of the sexism she may face?

NW: The first thing to remember is that whatever you love, it’s yours. It’s not “theirs” and somehow by loving a thing you’re invading a space — you always belonged there, it was yours to begin with, and don’t let anyone tell you you don’t deserve to be there.

HG: What do you think the gaming community learned from Gamergate? 

NW: This is a hard question to answer because Gamergate is not a thing that happened — it is still the present, and something that is still happening. It’s hard to tell what the long-term ramifications and lessons are going to be when it is still very much something that is evolving and changing, and there is no sign of an end-point.

HG: Which games or designers do you love? What is your hope and expectation for the future of gaming?

NW: Hidetaka Miyazaki, Brie Code, Keita Takahashi, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Tim Schafer, Christine Love, Kara Stone, Soha Kareem, Will O’Neill and Merritt Kopas are some of my favorites.

The future is, and has to be, more diverse games. More games, different games, different formats and mechanics and ideas and characters and art styles. More women, more queer designers, more people of color. I hope that games get better, weirder, more beautiful and strange. And more welcoming, more loving, more generous.

HG: What is the hardest part, and the best part, about being a girl gamer?

NW: I think my answer applies to anyone, regardless of whether or not they’re a women who games, but the hardest part is the fact that gamer culture can be hostile and exclusionary. The best part? How much gamers and game makers deeply love what they do, and being a part of that community and energy.

For more of Natalie’s work and writing, you can check out her website or follow her on Twitter @NatalieZed.

(Featured image c/o Natalie Walschots)