FEATURING O.U. FILM ALUMNA (M.A. '13) AND O.U. MEDIA ARTS DOCTORAL STUDENT STEFFI SHOOK
Interview by Natalie Hulla
SS: Hi, how are you?
NH: I’m good, how are you?
SS: I’m okay.
NH: Thanks for coming, I’m glad we could get some caffeine and chit chat going. So, first things first pretty much, how is your semester going?
SS: Really great, actually. I’m teaching this semester which I’m really excited about. I’m teaching Intro to Mass Media. I’ve been looking forward to that since I got into Media Arts, so I’m really excited for that.
NH: Yeah, and you’re here at Ohio University still.
NH: And this is your second year?
SS: Yeah, second year in the Media Arts PhD program.
NH: Cool. So, what’s your focus for your doctoral research?
SS: I’ve actually switched from film to video game studies. Right now, I’m at the very early stages of getting a dissertation topic together, so I’m just kind of a tornado of ideas. But right now, I’m looking at personal narrative video games.
NH: Really! Okay, this is a world that I’m actually not familiar with. So, why don’t we kind of back up and you can tell me a little bit about your work in the MA program and then we can chit chat about that transition, and dive into video game world -- again, something I’m not super familiar with, but I do remember that you and I chatted a little bit on Facebook, I think, talking about feminism and “Gamergate.”
NH: We’ll get to that. So, you graduated in 2013?
SS: Yeah, December of 2013.
NH: What was your thesis project?
SS: So, my thesis focused on American film musicals, and the reason I stuck with musicals was because I was thinking of something I could write about that I wouldn’t get tired of, and I’ve loved musicals my whole life. I could watch them over and over, so that’s kind of how I settled on that topic. What I really love about musicals is the outlandishness, right? The camp, all of that, so as I was watching these musicals, I noticed that they had very heteronormative endings. You have the man and woman together, culminating in marriage, or something like that.
NH: Like Calamity Jane.
SS: Right, exactly.
NH: What a shocking ending to that one, right?
SS: Right, right… So, that really interests me, those stark contrasts in the ending with all of these subversions that happen before. So, I’m seeing this pattern over and over and I decided that I could read these endings as camp or ironic in the face of the subversion that came before. I was looking at, how are heteronormative relationship sanctions subverted throughout these musicals? So, I looked at female agency through musical performance and the glorification of communal living, those kinds of things, and that’s how I ended up concluding that I could read the endings as ironic or camp. And, so, those endings are tacked on for inhibitory effects, right? Because you don’t want the mainstream society to be gay and extravagant and free in the way that those characters are, so you slap on a wedding at the end and that’s supposed to mitigate all this subversion that happened before.
NH: Right, yeah.
SS: It’s the same kind of idea that in the anti-hero films of the American Renaissance. The anti-hero has to die in the end and that’s somehow supposed to un-do all the glorification of violence that came before. That’s really crazy to me, right? So, I thought there had to be a different way to read those endings, and that’s what led me to the project.
NH: Cool, so what films did you focus on primarily?
SS: Way too many. So, I looked at both classical and post-classical American film musicals. Lots and lots of movies! Because I found this was a pattern that was stable throughout the entire genre, so I didn’t feel like I could focus on an historical moment. I wanted to take in as much as I could.
SS: I’ve been thinking about games for a while. I’ve been playing games my whole life, and my favorite undergrad professor studies games and I thought, maybe this is something I could do and to hop into games. And what’s so great about the Media Arts program is that we’re given tons of freedom, we can look at whatever we want. Everyone in my cohort is doing something completely different. So, that’s what I really love about it -- I have the freedom to look into games in that program.
NH: So, you talked about games with personal narratives. If you were to give me a crash course --
SS: Oh gosh.
NH: Like, a ‘video games for dummies’ --
SS: Well, that’s basically where I’m at right now! So, personal narrative games is a category I am trying to establish myself, but these games I’m looking at are made by a single developer -- one person writes the game, makes the game, distributes the game -- and this is, like, one singular author of the game. And these games deal with life experiences, or certain historical moments in this person’s life. They’re communicating their narrative to the player. What really interests me about these games is I’m finding that they use failure and player agency in ways that are different than other games that I’m familiar with. So, they arrest player agency a lot, or they arrest your movement, or they force you into undesirable actions and you have to live with the consequences of those actions. So, that’s where I’m at right now, trying to establish as a category and thinking of how failure works in these games.
NH: These personal narratives, is it that they’re the independent filmmakers of the video game world?
SS: They are, I guess you could say that!
NH: That’s kind of the way I’m trying to understand it. What sort of narratives do you see? Are they pretty realistic, or are they a little outrageous?
SS: It kind of runs the gamut. I started looking at games by trans developers, so the game that really got me hooked on this topic is “Dys4ia” by Anna Anthropy. It’s about her experience going on hormone therapy. It’s an absolutely remarkable game, but one thing that interests me about the game so much is the level of abstraction, right? Because it’s an 8-bit, kind of arcade looking game. So, it’s not direct representation, but we’re experiencing what she went through, we’re feeling empathy for her, through this level of abstraction.
SS: That’s something that I’m really hooked on right now. The thing is, I’m still geeking out about these games. I haven’t established critical distance. I’m really excited about all of this stuff, so that’s where I’m at right now.
NH: Yeah, I’m going to echo your sentiments, that that is pretty remarkable… Pretty much the only familiarity I have with video games are, like, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft -- is that what it’s called?
NH: Okay! So, yeah, this is a world that’s completely different to me but that’s really, really cool… Is there a sense of political motivation in that, or is it just, like, ‘this is my life’?
SS: Definitely. The personal is political, right? You’re making some kind of statement through your own experience, and you say this is a whole different world, it is for me, too, because I played video games my whole life and I got into college and realized how sexist and awful they can be and I distanced myself. I just played Kingdom Hearts, things with Disney characters, to stay away from all the ugliness. Then Gamergate happened, and I still can’t even talk about it because it makes so mad. So, I’m like, I don’t want to look at sexism in games, I don’t want to look at female representation, I can’t put myself in that dark, ugly place for the next however many years. So, there’s gotta be something out there that games can do that no one is talking about. Something exciting, something new. So, that’s how I came across these games.
NH: How did you locate the video game you were telling me about?
SS: We played it in class with Ofer in Video Game Image. We played that game.
NH: You played video games in a film class?
SS: Yeah. It was an amazing class.
NH: Tell me more about that.
SS: We watched movies, we played games, we did readings and put it all together. The thing about game studies is it’s not discipline or field. People are doing it in a bunch of different departments, so there’s no established definition, no established methodology. That’s what makes it really difficult. You have to locate yourself somewhere in order to do it. So, I really enjoyed that class because we started in film and went from there and looked at new media theory and how can we think about games with the tools that we already have?
NH: Going from writing a thesis in your M.A. program to approaching a dissertation, those are two, completely different scopes. So, what does your path look like right now? Or, is that like asking someone who’s about to graduate, ‘What are you doing with your life?’
SS: Well, I’ll tell you where I’m at right now: I’m working with Ofer in independent study to get me to circle in on a topic. So, what I did first, after hitting a lot of dead ends, I just played the games for, like, a week straight. I just played and played and then wrote down the questions, and then we’re going to look at what kinds of methodologies can answer those particular questions. I’m really interested in how player interacts with text. I told you about how failure works in these games, so those mechanic questions… Hopefully, I can come up with something.
NH: Well, I ask this an M.F.A. student, so I come at it from a different world… Tell me a little bit more about how you determine which methodologies, in general, how do you approach that?
SS: I’m still in kind of the crash course in methodologies because when you’re in the M.A. program, we don’t talk about it, right? We just work with theory. So, then I get into social science and we have to have method sections and we have to explain why we’re doing things, and I still have a major block about that kind of stuff. So, we get into the social sciences and your methods are qualitative and quantitative. I was sitting at orientation in Media Arts and a professor comes up to the person behind me and is like, ‘Are you more qualitative or quantitative?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if someone comes up and asks me that question, I don’t even know what those words mean!’ So, I was so nervous!
NH: That’s the geekiest thing I’ve ever -- it’s like the most personal question you can ask an academic!
SS: On the first day you meet them, right? It’s going to define you for the rest of your relationship.
NH: Yeah, buy me coffee, first.
SS: So, yeah, I don’t know much about methodology, I’m still trying to figure that out.
NH: So, you are teaching Intro to Mass Media. What does that encompass?
SS: So, we start out with theories of communication, mass media theories, and then we go through each medium separately. We do books and newspapers and films and radio, and we look at them separately, and so we go through the history of each medium and ‘what is the relationship between the audience and the medium, what does it look like now, how is it changing?’ That sort of thing. Conglomeration, convergence, all of those big words.
NH: That’s a changing field, all the time, right?
SS: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I’m teaching freshmen, so I’m eight years older than the youngest people in the class, and my cultural references go completely over their head. Everything that I mention, they have no idea what I’m talking about. They made me watch a Justin Bieber video in class and I have never even heard of the song! Apparently, it’s a huge song right now.
NH: Oh, god, that’s so humbling.
SS: I know! I have them do a media log where they log their media for 48 hours. I had no idea what they were talking about. They’re talking about apps that I had never even heard of — like GroupMe and YikYak — I had no idea what those are, so I’m going to have to start thinking, ‘What are 18-year-olds into right now?’ I’ve got to start making more connections. Because the last time I taught, I was in School of Film, I was a few years younger and I was teaching juniors and seniors, and we were really close in age. Now, I’m like way older than these people and I have no idea how to relate to them. Like, these are teenagers.
NH: Well, it’s kind of scary, in a way, that in a short, 8 years, you’re that far removed from that kind of media.
SS: I know, it’s amazing.
NH: What do the kids do these days?
SS: So, they all listen to Pandora radio, constantly, and they’re really into Drake.
NH: All of them? Across the board?
SS: Yeah! Even the kids who listen to country music, they’re like, ‘Blake Shelton, The Band Perry, and then Drake.’ So, everyone loves Drake, I found that out. They all watch One Tree Hill, which hasn’t that been off for years?
NH: I watched that in high school.
SS: So, they all watch re-runs on Netflix — it must have just went up on Netflix because everyone watches that — they were really into How I Met Your Mother, and Grey’s Anatomy they still watch. I didn’t know anyone still watched that show.
NH: Yeah, these all came out when I was a freshman in high school.
SS: Exactly, and I bet it’s because they all have Netflix accounts, so they pick things that are later. But I was trying to explain to them how Skillrex — is that even how you say it?
SS: Yeah. He was a different person when I was in high school. He was Sunny Moore, because emo was really big when I was in high school, and he was the lead singer of From First to Last.
NH: Oh, goodness. You never see my right eye in pictures — and this is an homage to my emo roots.
SS: Right. So, I was trying to explain to them that this person you listen to all the time was a different person when I was in high school and they were just blown away. They had no idea what I was talking about.