Jane Kuznetsova is in the second year of her PhD in Language and Literacy Education at UBC. She holds a Master’s in Humanities Computing from the University of Alberta and a combined Specialist degree in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics from Lomonosov Moscow State University. Her current focus is particularly in games-related education and her research interests include systematic portrayals of romance and intimacy in games and digital media, mechanical representations of psychological trauma in games and subversions of player agency.
*This is a transcript of our conversation on January 8, 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve had a very winding academic path, from linguistics, to digital humanities, game studies, trauma studies and now to sociolinguistics. It seems like the best place to start is at the very beginning. What made you initially interested in linguistics as a field of study?
‘I went to university because I thought that I had to,’ is probably the best way to put it. This was sort of a given in my family. Both of my parents were doctors, in Canadian terms. In Russian terms, it’s called a ‘candidate’ because the Russian system is very weird, but essentially, it’s equivalent to a PhD here. My mom is a very strong-willed person and as I was growing up it wasn’t a question of whether I would go to university, it was just a question of which one.
In Russia, university is free if you get into what is called a budget space: there are a certain number of publicly funded educational spaces, at least in public universities, that you don’t have to pay for if you get good grades on your entry exams — well, it used to be entry exams, it’s different now. Also, stop me when there are too many details that you don’t care about.
It’s ok, don’t worry about rambling because we can edit and condense afterwards.
Essentially, it was just that this was how it was assumed that my life would go in my family, because they didn’t have any other plans for me. I realize it might sound ridiculous in Canada, because being able to go to college and especially to grad school here can be a huge privilege, but being an academic is not a very prestigious thing in Russia. Again, this is how it used to be 10 years ago and there have been changes, but it’s hard for me to talk about academic passion or having a particular calling, especially considering I was sixteen going into university. It wasn’t a question of what I was interested in as much as there were a few things my parents thought I should be doing with my life (economics or computing science) and I didn’t want to do them, so I had to figure out a way to be rebellious with the least amount of effort.
I also went to a really good specialized math school that could prepare you for a solid career as a mathematician, which for me did not seem to have a whole lot of practical applications.
I’m still waiting for the moment when I use trigonometry in real life.
Well, actually there are quite a few ways you can use trigonometry in real life. I’m from game studies now, so I tend to encounter them a lot in my life — anything to do with 3D modelling, especially if movement is involved. Also trigonometry is very important for driving submarines.
As for my own passions, I wanted to study drama, I wanted to go into theatre. That was a little too rebellious for my family, so much so that everyone just dismissed it, thinking that I was probably joking. You don’t really go into drama school without any support from your social network whatsoever, or at least I didn’t have enough determination to say I was still going to do this whatever anyone thinks. As far as I know, drama education is kind of a grueling experience to go through, and I didn’t really have anyone in my life who was very serious about this, so no role models to follow. But my older sister went into linguistics in a different university and while I was still in high school she got me into linguistic summer schools and there was a particular community related to them that was doing linguistic Olympiads. I guess science Olympiads are not that popular in Canada – it’s kind of similar to mathletes but for different subjects; it was basically competitive problem-solving, except in linguistics.
I was very lucky that the exact year that I was finishing high school, I did this Olympiad as a fun activity, and that was the year that Olympiad acquired official status, so that it could influence your university admissions exams. I didn’t know that would happen, but I got third place which was enough to not have to do a number of entry exams into this particular program. It was convenient, and so I went with it. I was very excited to get in, but more because I wanted to continue being part of this community, rather than actually study linguistics.
You did have to study a couple foreign languages as a speaker but mostly it was theoretical linguistics, learning how a language works in general, not really being good at any particular languages. It’s fun to explain linguistics to people — they often think it means that you’re able to speak a lot of languages. Nope!
Out of curiosity, how many languages do you speak?
I would say two confidently, Russian and English. I am currently relearning Spanish. We had to thoroughly study two foreign languages in the program, for me that was German and Spanish. We ended up having a very strange relationship as I was finishing university, and I’ve recently decided to try to recover that relationship now that I actually have Spanish-speaking friends. Fingers crossed for me actually learning Spanish this time.
It’s harder to learn a language later in life right?
Yes, but in terms of brain plasticity, that only works a very very short period of time in your early life. If you miss the train before you’re 10, you can’t really rely on it anymore.
You remarked to me a few times while preparing for this conversation that your first degree made you somewhat reluctant to return to studying linguistics or any academic subject. Why was that the case?
I’m only realizing many of these things now that I am studying a different aspect of languages and language learning and am in a community of people who approach linguistics very differently from how it was done there. The department I was at was very rigorous, but also very mathematical in both its approaches and some material things, like what departments the teaching professors were from. The entrance essay was the last time you had to read anything fictional, so no working with fictional texts or reading, or media, and instead approaching language as a system in a very structural way. This was supported by a significant number of math-adjacent subjects in the program. We took mathematical analysis, algebra, some pretty hardcore theoretical statistics starting deep within the theory of probability, which is not something you usually study with statistics for practical purposes.
Did that give you a certain mathematical understanding of language or have you found that that mathematical approach hasn’t held strong with you?
The thing with math is that it’s very abstract, on purpose. It’s very close to fiction in this way, it’s close to a Tolkien approach to science. You invent a bunch of things in your head and then you think really hard about them. For me that’s the beauty of math, that you can do anything you want with it, because there isn’t anything in the real world that it corresponds to. But that’s not entirely true with language. You can say that there’s English that is separate from any person who speaks English; that there’s just this abstract canonical language that you can study. You can study how syntax in English works and build these very complex models, but while it was fascinating in a brain-teaser way, for me there was always something missing. It ultimately felt pointless, or at least that’s how it feels to me now that I am exposed to a lot of work in sociolinguistics.
There’s something very disheartening to me about approaching language as though it supersedes humans who speak it. Language is a communication system first and foremost. It didn’t appear out of the blue sky, it didn’t fall down on us and we picked it up and said ‘oh this is neat, we should speak it.’ We didn’t have it for a very long time and then we developed it and it’s interesting to think about how we did that and why. One of the big noticeable differences between us and other animals is that we can communicate very well, and thinking about it in this historical perspective, or anthropological perspective, makes me feel good. I get this warm feeling sometimes thinking about how we decided we wanted to share things with each other, one thing led to another and here we are. That’s an approach to linguistics that inspires me.
Some other things that upset me about these structural approaches to languages is that it creates these stories of deficiency. Such as, for example, saying that if you are a non-native speaker, you can speak a language wrong — which is ridiculous, because the goal of language is to communicate, and so the only potentially wrong way is to purposefully make it hard for someone to understand you. And this idea that there is something inherent in the way languages are structured is just not true. There are historical processes that went into making us speak certain languages the way we do but — well, it’s a very essentialist approach to language that I now understand I found very disheartening when I was exposed to it during my undergrad.
All of this made it so much harder to finish. My final year was very very hard. The fifth year and finishing that final thesis – the thesis was not a bad one, not a great one either. But just finishing that entire thing – I thought: ‘I am never going into a research program ever again because this was the hardest thing that I’ve done in my life.’ I would say it’s still true, that fifth year of undergrad is still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Hence the transition into digital humanities? Trying to find something that did feel inspiring or an approach to linguistics that had real world applications and not abstract research?
I wish it went that way because it would’ve made a lot of sense. It did sort of turn out that way but I can trace that path only now, as I look back at it.
After university, I got a job as a technical writer. Basically, my job was to talk to software developers, figure out exactly what they were doing and write it down so that other developers on different teams could build modules that would work with whatever this team was doing. It was the same skills being used in a way that felt more applied than what I had been doing; figuring out how to systematize knowledge, understand algorithms and things like that. In general, developers tend to be great at code and bad at explaining what exactly they’re doing.
As I was doing that, I went to a summer institute — I think everyone should learn about it and participate in it — it’s called the New York–St. Petersburg Institute on Linguistics, Cognition and Culture (https://www.nyi.spb.ru/). I pretended to be a linguist to get into this school, and then didn’t take a single linguistics class.
My favourite class during that institute was on trauma studies. I had never heard of it before and was instantly sold. The person who taught it was a film scholar who mostly talked about how psychological trauma is portrayed in film and literature. As I was taking that trauma theory class, for my final project, I wrote an essay on how I thought you could study video games through that same lens.
I played a lot of games when I was little — computer games and role-playing games with friends. I stopped when I got into high school because as good as my high school was, certain things were frowned upon because they weren’t things that “smart kids” do and playing video games was one of them. Then I went back to games in my third year of undergrad — around the time I dropped out of university for a year. That was also when I got into video game fandom proper for the first time. Having your entire life be online and as part of various fandom communities can be fun; they can be very creative and nurturing in many ways and they were for me. Those were years that helped me survive school and it was a very important process for developing my interests. But, looking back, it also was maybe unhealthy in some ways.
One way to interact with the medium in these communities was to write really long plot analyses of games and I got into reading and debating them as well. It was fun to think about games from a media critical perspective, even if I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time. That was basically how I got into cultural studies, through participating in those fandoms.
Those three weeks in that summer school were also how the seeds were sown for my future Master’s education. I had written this project, not as a joke but, I suppose, not expecting that it would be taken entirely seriously. But the professors were really interested, and that is how I realized that there were people in North America who actually viewed this as legitimate scholarship.
I want to ask you more about the specific research that you did during your Master’s degree, because the titles of your papers are very intriguing. One in particular you presented a few times: “I'm Not Gay for Leliana: Representing Sexuality and Attraction in Games Beyond Romance.” Can you tell me a bit more about this paper? I am curious about the argument and reference to the Dragon Age franchise and it may be a good example of what critical game studies is really like.
Ok, first, before I talk about the paper, let me give some background on romance in games. So, there are games out there that feature romance, as part of the narrative, or as the main theme, or as a subplot, or as a mechanic, even entire genres. Bioware games [games developed by the company Bioware], such as Dragon Age, are quite famous for it. Incidentally, they have a significantly larger female player demographic than on average for games of that genre.
By the way, if anyone tells you that women don’t play games, this is a lie. Statistics tend to show that people of all genders play games regularly. However, there are some gaming communities that tend to be quite hostile to women, and thus women tend to play more casual or mobile games compared to men.
Bioware in particular produces ‘shooters’ and ‘RPGs’; shooters being games where you run around with a gun and shoot things, and RPGs or role playing games being those where you have a character you develop and there is an overarching narrative, oftentimes fantasy-based. Those kinds of games are usually not as popular with women, but Bioware is a notable exception. One of the reasons, I think (and it seems to be supported by player surveys they’ve published), is because these games place a lot of weight on good narrative, and in particular on character-focused interactions. There are many characters you meet along the way, and you need to build relationships with them, not all romantic but there are opportunities for building romantic relationships as well.
I know from talking to my mom that it is very hard to conceptualize what such interactions might look like if you’ve never played games like this yourself. For her, games are mostly Tetris or Doom. My previous work on psychological trauma was easier for me to explain to her, but even then she was like: ‘Oh, so in shooters, you’re running around and shooting stuff and it’s very violent, is that what you mean when you say traumatic?’ That was not what I meant (and what I ultimately wrote my Master’s thesis about), but the connection between trauma and violence in games seems to be more obvious than the connection between games and romance to most people, or at least that has been my impression.
However, romance games are very popular. There are even entire online communities built specifically around the storylines of romancing different characters in Bioware games, and those games are actually pretty standard role-playing games that don’t even have romance as the main goal. There are games out there focused solely on romance — entire genres, similar to romance novels, with the whole point of the game being how to end up with a particular character. And like romance novels, they tend to have somewhat of an eccentric image in the eyes of the general audience.
Bioware games are different because they aren’t solely focused on that, but it is a significant element and that is partially how they became so popular. These are still fairly — I don’t want to say straight because they’re not straight, they’re pretty gay — they’re fairly straightforward shooters and role-playing games, but they’ve included this aspect of building relationships with non-playable characters and that attracted particular gaming communities that didn’t necessarily feel included or represented elsewhere.
For example, these games are famous for including queer characters from very early on. Bioware is a pretty big company with a very long history, which usually means ‘risk-averse’ nowadays, but they’ve started experimenting with including romanceable queer characters in their storylines back in 2003 (in a Star Wars game no less), and they’ve included queer characters in their games ever since. Famously, many more lesbians than gay characters...but that’s a separate topic for discussion.
And it just so happened, out of this combination of different factors — romance narratives, large gaming communities that socialize through analysing their favourite games, the inclusion of marginalized folks and topics that were pretty much non-existent in other popular games, that there was a lot of fandom talk about romance in general, based on the experiences in those games. You can say that there were people, myself included, for whom playing those games was a formative experience in terms of shaping how we approach romance and intimacy in real life. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and something very worth investigating in my opinion.
The particular arguments of the paper you mentioned are around what kinds of things we might be able to learn about how we view romance from these games. If we presuppose that playing these games and being in these communities can influence how we view relationships in real life, then what kinds of arguments are these games actually making about relationships?
One of the things I see as somewhat problematic in these portrayals is that games are almost entirely based on interaction, but it’s very limited, much more limited than the idealistic way it’s often viewed.
Because you’re only ever given a set of limited options.
Exactly. You only ever have the options that are coded in, which really limits the diversity of what you can do or say, and what your character can feel. I find that this is also how we often view relationships in real life, like there are scripts that we need to follow. It’s interesting to untangle these influences from each other.
How does critical game studies, romance in games, player agency, things like that relate to what you’re doing now in your PhD, which is focused on language and literacy education?
Good question. My committee also keeps asking me.
So, there are two main areas of my department are language education, which is mostly about foreign language education: how do you teach foreign languages and what is the best way to teach them? What kinds of policies exist in Canada considering a multinational or multicultural context, what does multiculturality mean and how does it connect to what we discussed earlier about whether a “correct” way of speaking English or another language even exists?
And the other area is literacy. In a very narrow definition this is about how to teach people to read and write. However, my department at UBC tends to look at literacy in a much broader sense, not just written language and literature. How do people learn to, as Paolo Freire put it, “read the world”? This framework is known as multiliteracies, and I find this perspective very inspiring, because if you look at the world through this lens, everything is built on language. This is literacy education in this very all-encompassing sense of how people learn to understand and conceptualize things around them and produce new information, new art and learn new skills.
There is a smaller branch of this that looks at how games are being used for education in this sense. This is how I came to... whatever I’m doing right now. But my interests started in this narrow way — what do games teach us about romance — and I realized along the way that I’m interested more broadly in the question of how do we learn about romance in general?
There are romance novels and romance movies, and now games as well, but we don’t really get any formal education in romance in an interpersonal relationships sense. So the questions I’m asking now are: how do we learn about what we should do with personal relationships, what does this area of knowledge involve, and specifically what role does pop culture play in it? And finally, as not a lot of people are looking at games in this regard, but I know from personal experience how big of a role they can play, what are the unique affordances that games provide for discussing and teaching intimacy in better, healthier, more fulfilling ways?
by: Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC; Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2020-21