Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies

Imogen Kaufman, PhD student

Imogen talks to us about her research into gaming, and how better understanding gaming communities and identities could help make the world a safer place.

What is your research project?

"I'm working in partnership with the National Video Game Museum whose wider project brief is to explore the lived experience of video games in the UK. My contribution to that is the exploration of gaming opinions, experiences and identities within gaming spaces examined through oral history. By gaming spaces, I'm not looking only inside games, but also at communities of people who play games, the industry where the games are made and places like the museum where the heritage of games is preserved.

Imogen looks to the camera with one hand against her head.

I've always been interested in identity research of any kind. And I think gaming is a really interesting site for that because you're playing characters and you're existing in online spaces where we can pretend to be other people. It's just such an exciting space to think about these things.

I'm interested in how we feel about games, how we feel about them differently to other people and how strongly some people feel about them in different directions. I'm also interested in how the term 'gamer' is used and how the language around games lends itself to the extreme end of gaming where there is a huge problem with the right wing. I'm interested in how the wider ecosystem of gaming relates to that darker side and how we can look at the whole picture to try and work out how to get rid of that.

I believe the way we talk about things matters, and there is a way we all talk about games that can naturalise that darker side existing in gaming. For example a lot of the white male terrorist incidents are linked specifically to those men's connection to online spaces, which are also often gaming spaces. I'd rather not look away from that and deal with the whole picture."

How did you choose your subject?

"I studied undergraduate history at Durham where I my dissertation was on queer history. I listened to oral histories of lesbian women from the interwar period, and that was really meaningful and special. Then I did a master's in queer history at Goldsmiths and that dissertation ended up being about a trans representation in video game history. I then had the idea for this PhD whilst I was working at the museum and when I saw the opportunity come up at Nottingham I knew it was for me.

I'm deeply and personally connected to the subject because I'm queer, Jewish and I also play games. So I'm very much opposed to the right wing ideologies that exist in gaming who believe I shouldn't be there.

I feel a level of responsibility in that I care about these spaces, and I'd like them to be better. Also a lot of white men in gaming are very miserable, and I would like them to be happier."

The research community at Nottingham 

I enjoy studying at Nottingham; it's a lot more diverse than my experiences at other universities and the postgraduate community feels more supportive without any ruthlessness which is better for our mental health. 

 "All the people I've met are lovely and have such different and interesting projects. There's been no judgement, the community is very nice and relaxed. What makes it so interesting is that we all do such different things, we go to work in progress sessions to hear about other people's research which really broadens your horizons.

There is a lot of research connected to local heritage which I've never seen at any other university."

After your PhD

"I'm not entirely sure yet what I'd like to do after my PhD, I might stay in academia but my personal opinion is that you should also have an alternative path.

I could go into museums or potentially go into the game industry itself. I think a lot of my research would lend itself well to community analysis and improving the relationship between players and developers, because that can be a huge issue especially in online spaces where there can be abuse and a lack of understanding.

My dream job would be anti terrorist work with white terrorism, but I'm not sure I'd like to live in London. Also, I'd never be able to tell anyone what my job is so I'd have to make up a cover story!"

How has the Midlands4Cities funding helped you

"Midlands4Cities funding is the only reason I'm here to be completely honest. I couldn't afford to do a PhD otherwise.

It also puts everyone on a level playing field. So it's not like university where you may really feel the financial difference of different people's situations, which can feel very unfair. Now it feels like it's much more even and there's less disparity."

What qualities does a good postdoc researcher need?

"I think you need a really healthy work life balance. You could sit and research something for 12 hours, but once you hit that eight hour mark you might find that your research is not going to be as good or taken in as well. It's really important to have the healthy boundaries between work and relaxation.

I also think you need to have creativity and patience because you'll come across roadblocks in your work that you'll need to navigate around. For example, I know people who have had to get people in other countries to send them photos of pages of books because they are unable to travel.

My research, which is collected via interviews is very slow and time-consuming as I must undertake the interviews and then transcribe them. Sometimes it can make me feel a bit unsure and I feel that I'm not producing anything and have nothing to show for all  my hard work. So I think it's important to believe in the bigger picture."

You need to have confidence in yourself because I know so many people who doubt their research and what they're doing, but you wouldn't be here and you wouldn't have been funded if someone hadn't thought your work was worthwhile.

What was the most challenging aspect of your PhD? 

"I think with COVID the loneliness has been really bad. I overcame that by making a Discord server and connecting with people that way.

Also, I didn't do game studies before I did history so I entered a completely new field and had to familiarise myself with all these new names. That was a bit overwhelming.

It's very difficult not to compare your research progress to other peoples. This is especially true when I look at people whose PhD follows on from their masters, this gives them the advantage of starting their PhD with a large body of research to hand. It can feel that they are already way ahead, writing up whilst I'm still just starting. But it's important to realise that your journey is yours, and it doesn't really matter what anyone else is doing." 

Why is oral history so important?

"I think it's the only way to explore a human experience of any phenomena. It's so touching and personal. There's no other resource like it. Take the oral histories that came out of the Holocaust, they are so meaningful and important in remembering the actual experiences of an event like that. How else will we know what people thought or felt at that time? You could never get that same level of emotion or understanding from a written source."

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