Accessibility is Privilege: A Response to ‘Barriers to entry in archaeogaming’

Last night, after I had put the survey data to bed, and after I had put the new Nintendo Switch to bed, and just as I was putting myself to bed, Florence Smith Nicholls (@florencesn) posted a really important takedown of barriers to entry in archaeogaming. Go read it here:

https://florencesmithnicholls.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/barriers-to-entry-in-archaeogaming/

I had already been thinking some during the day about my level of privilege as regards my scholarship. To begin the next portion of my research, I have to purchase all of the games that are being employed as case studies. In many cases, this means I also have to purchase the hardware to run those games, and the myriad adaptors, wires and dongles to make those aged consoles work on my television and monitor. I have to own a television and monitor capable of accepting a variety of inputs. I have to own speciality units and cards to capture video and screenshots off of machines that were never intended to offer such functionality. I have to pay for the physical hard drives on which to store all of the footage and stills I collect, as well as cloud storage for secondary backups. I have to maintain a solid internet connection.

None of this is cheap.

I agree with Smith Nicholls in her assertion that a ‘discussion of personal financial situation’ is an important part of addressing the inequality to access in archaeogaming research. I agree that it is relevant to the academic discourse. I would argue in a discussion on accessibility, it’s actually more relevant as a key feature than discussing grant funding, which as a field we take for granted as acceptable for disclosure.

I’m self-funded for my PhD. As an international student, I qualify for almost no financial aid or scholarships, and I don’t receive money from UK research funding agencies. All of my work is possible because I have the personal financial resources to put towards this. Some of this money is savings, which I put away out of my earnings before beginning my program, in the hopes that I’d get accepted to do research. Some of this money is from family, who put away money out of their earnings in the hopes that I’d need it one day for education. The privilege inherent in all of my funding streams is immense, and I don’t take it for granted.

That’s only speaking to the financial privilege though. There’s an entire other world of privilege that impedes accessibility, as Smith Nicholls alludes to.

Time is a privileged resource within this field. To be able to study in games, the researcher has to have a proficiency of play. Learning how to play, and having the skill with mechanics and in-game systems to play at a level where that play becomes muscle memory and background, that doesn’t happen overnight. Every new game I select for research requires varying degrees of skilling up time. Before I connect all of the wires and extra units and start “working,” I have to devote time to playing the game. It’s not billable, and it doesn’t generate data. It’s time I have to steal from somewhere else — from my writing hours, or (more often) from my personal life. It’s time I can’t steal from the fixed parts of my week, like my teaching hours, but that means that there is less time outside of those fixed hours in which to write, or to have a personal life. And all of this, every bit of this, rests on the existing privilege that I get to make this my daily ‘work’ and don’t have to manage (at best) a 9 to 5 on top of the dissertation.

Access is a privileged resource within this field. I have access to a wealth of published material through my university library. What I can’t access directly, I can request. In a discussion on this topic, James Dixon (@James_Dixon) questioned whether university libraries could be involved in providing access to games as necessary learning materials. Tara Copplestone (@gamingarchaeo) reports some success with this, but despite being in the same library system, I have not. Even being in the same system, our levels of access have differed, apart from how elevated they are generally from the non-academically situated researcher who might want to start working within archaeologically themed games. My access is also privileged in the level of contacts I have, contacts I’ve made through attending conferences, through engagement on social media, and through introductions that cascaded out of those efforts.

I respect that Smith Nicholls put herself out there to explore how she, personally, intends to work around the financial barriers that prohibit full accessibility to archaeogaming as a research discipline. I would encourage all of us involved in the discipline to consider the ethical implications of our own privilege, and how we’re contributing to, or hindering, accessibility.

In response, these are my action items, and what I’m going to do to use my privilege to make the discipline more accessible:

Make all of my data open to the public, within ethics guidelines.

If I’ve already played a game, taken screenshots, collected video segments, and made notes on content, that’s a dataset that could be used by someone else for parallel or additional research. Though play is of course ideal, if we treat the game like a text that can be read, this level of access is enough to facilitate many avenues of knowledge production.

Ensure open dialogue is always available.

This comes down to not just starting conversations, which I’m good at, but making sure the opportunity is there for others to see and take part in the conversations, especially if they’re outside of the ‘bubble’ of those of us who research in archaeogaming full-time. (The bubble is a big, big problem, and something that I’ve been worrying a lot of fingernails over.) Taking part in more unconferences, like that being put on by VALUE (@value_project) would help, as would giving more public talks that aren’t situated in the academic world. We need to make the work, and opportunities to engage in dialogue on the work, available regardless of location, and that means having the conversation in real spaces too, not just digital spaces.

Support the work of others.

Because I have the resources to do so, and as long as I have those resources, I’m putting my money where my mouth is. For every conference I attend, I will donate the cost of a full registration to the organization’s student support fund. If an organization doesn’t have a student support fund, I will not participate in their conference. I recognize that this only helps students, and doesn’t fix the larger issue of accessibility, but it’s the start I can make.

There’s a lot we need to do to make research in this area something truly open and available to all. The good news is, we are small enough to create a climate of accessibility from the beginning, and to hold each other accountable for actions that don’t further that end.