Ahead of Time: Felix Schniz on Studying Video Games
Video games are a popular activity amongst young people. But is that all they are? Is there more to them? Yes, there is. Felix Schnitz has dedicated a lot of his academic career so far to studying and analysing video games and co-founded the Master’s Programme Game Studies and Engineering at the University of Klagenfurt. “The field of Game Studies has only been around for 20 years, and I think one of the biggest problems is the stigma that comes with video games; stigmas such as that they make children violent, that they make people obese because they don’t do sports anymore. This is absolutely untrue, and it is hindering academic progress. Many video games cover important topics, like telling the story of indigenous people and making us rethink our ways of storytelling.” He found many supporters at the Department of English for his idea of offering courses that focus on Game Studies and eventually an entire Master’s programme was created. “There is so much culture out there that gets neglected that should be paid attention to and that’s how I made a home at this department. There was not a single person at the department who raised an eyebrow about the topic of video games. Everybody was very supportive from the start and very interested right off the bat and doing their very best to support me which is absolutely fantastic.” We have spoken to Felix Schniz about his book and his career at the University of Klagenfurt as well as the Master’s programme of Game Studies and Engineering.
You’ve just released your first monograph “Genres und Videospiel.” How would you explain what the book is about to a layperson?
I want to raise awareness about the fact that when we talk about genres and video games, we have to use a completely different logic than we would when we are talking about other genres. We are all used to talking about genres when we talk about our favorite films or our favorite music and are used to using genres as categories. That just does not work for video games. There are still those categories, but they function differently than they do in films or in music which is something I wanted to bring attention to for future research.
What is it that makes video games different from films and literature in terms of assigning them to a genre?
The main difference is interactivity. When we play a video game, we, as players, have a major role in how these video games function and what happens in those video games. This, thus far, is not really reflected in the categories that are applied to them because we took over the logic we use in film and music. When we talk about video games we might be inclined to talk about mechanics, for example. Is it a shooter? Is it a role-playing game? Is it a sports game? We might also talk about narratological levels. Is it a horror game? Is it a drama game? Is it a comedy game? Or an adventure game? The clue is that all of these layers are in there somewhere, and it’s the player who brings them together and makes them mingle, and it’s also the player who decides how these categories play out. In my book, I introduced a philosophical concept called objet ambigu. The basic idea of this concept is that you have something, and you are not really sure what it is because it is such a complex item, and it could be many different things at once. The clue to this philosophical concept is that the answer is not in the object but that it is within you because you think about it. And that’s also true for the video game. There are many different ways of playing a video game which might be different from the way the creator intended. For example, there is something called “speedrunning” in video games. The idea is to finish the video game as fast as possible. By doing this you can turn a dramatic story line into an obstacle course simply because that’s how you decide you want to play the game. Another aspect we need to consider when talking about genres in video games are social criteria.
How do you go about determining the genre of a video game? Is the game mode (e.g., role-playing game) or the narrative more relevant when determining genre?
I first have a look at these different categories that we’ve been talking about. They could be about rules, mechanics, the story line of the game, or how the world is being represented. But what I mainly look at is potential. I look at what I can do with that video game and how these genres unfold depending on how I interact with the video game. So, talking about video game genres is not so much about talking about categories but more about the logic behind those categories because they can shift fast in video games. It’s very ambiguous, it’s fluid. I can have one genre experience one day and then approach the video game two days later and have a completely different genre experience depending on my mood, on what I want to do in the game, on what I experience in the game. If it is a multiplayer game, it also depends on what other players do.
How long did you work on your book?
I started it before I came to Klagenfurt, so we are talking about a book that has been well over three years in the making. Writing a book takes up a lot of time. You need the proper surroundings for that, and I found a wonderful team at the Department of English in Klagenfurt. I found very supportive people but also people who work in different fields who could contribute different ideas. I worked on major parts of the book with the help of Alexander Onysko, for example, who is first and foremost a linguist, so genre means something completely different to him than it does to me which added quite a lot to how I saw different things, especially in regards to social genres.
How did you get the idea of researching genres in video games?
What gave me the idea was one of the first seminars I taught at the University of Mannheim where I was part of the English department as an external lecturer. I had different ideas about what to do and where to go with my master’s degree, so I taught about video game genres. I thought this is a topic that would be of interest to people who are studying at the department of literary studies and might not be used to talking about video games. Even if you have never played a video game before, as a student of literary studies you can talk about genres. I thought this might be a nice new layer of knowledge for the students. In the course of that seminar, we also did a field trip. We all got a trial account for World of War Craft and did a field trip into a virtual world. While we were playing the video game together, we discovered that we all had very different interactions with other people that we met in that online world. That was one of the main clues that made me realise that this social factor is something that we don’t have in film or books, or in any other media. A video game adds so much to how we experience genre.
Will you include the topic in the classes you’re teaching?
Absolutely. I’m currently teaching a seminar, Issues in Game Studies on video game genres. The book already got raving reviews from some of my colleagues. They are excited about this idea and say that it is definitely something that should be included in Game Studies because nobody has looked at video game genres that way before. This is how you develop an idea. I had one good idea before the book in a seminar, I wanted to bring it into more of my seminars, see what students think about it and develop new ideas together and to potentially get a second edition out as soon as possible. The English translation is in the making and it could already be an extension to the work I did already and add new thoughts and new concepts to the mix.
You are the programme director of the Master’s programme Game Studies and Engineering which is a unique programme in Austria. What does this field of study cover?
At this university specifically, the programme covers a hybrid approach to video games. The biggest issue that Game Studies suffers from is that it includes a lot of different disciplines and they all approach video games according to their own methodology. Video games are part of the curriculum of literary studies, for example, in English and German departments in Germany, where literary terminology is being applied to video games. The same thing happens in technological fields, in sociology, and in psychology. What we want to do at this university is to mingle fields. In this master’s programme, students have classes in the tech department but also in the humanities disciplines and the English department. We provide students who want to talk about video games and who want to make a difference in the games industry with knowledge coming from several disciplines as the medium deserves.
What was the impetus for starting this programme?
I brought the idea with me from my master’s degree from the University of Mannheim where I wrote about video games but was a single exotic bird in my field because this is something that nobody had done there before. I wanted to give students the opportunity to engage with this medium academically without having to jump through all these hoops. A main impetus also comes from René Reinhold Schallegger of course and from Mathias Lux who both greatly engaged in getting this programme started and engaging students with video games well before I came and finally, together, we managed to make this a master’s programme of its own.
How does the interdisciplinary nature of the degree prepare graduates for possible jobs?
When you work in the games industry, you have to be able to communicate on many different levels which is something you cannot do if you come from only one single discipline. Of course, having a major in English and American studies prepares you for a certain aspect of dealing with a medium, but doing a few technical courses as well shows you another logic of thinking, a design logic, a programming logic. After my master’s programme I joined a writing workshop. A part of it was concerned with how you would pitch an idea for a game design studio. There are a lot of very creative people in humanities who want to work with video games. A lot of times, these people are completely ill prepared for a pitch at a game design studio because they know how to write up creative characters and how to make up a fantasy world, but the representatives from the game studio might ask questions like: will this be a single-player game or a multi-player game? What kind of graphical engine would you use for that game? What kind of rule logic would you use? What would be the core mechanics selling your game? If you have never encountered these terms before, you are doomed to fail. If you have a programme that covers all of these areas, you are a lot better prepared. Also, there are a lot of indie game companies out there which are very small. The company might consist of only 4 to 5 people and if the only programmer is ill for a day, you might have to cover parts of their job. It is also important regarding communication between the creative and the programming team to be familiar with the other areas. We had students founding their own indie game studios, others who went to work with one of the biggest game studios in Europe. So, if we foster this even more, it means a great future for our students.
What are your future plans for the programme?
I want to foster that interdisciplinarity more. We accept the bachelor of arts and bachelor of science, so we get a lot of different people together. In order to foster that even more, we would have to adapt the curriculum. It would be great if we had seminars focussing on interdisciplinary research strategies. We pride ourselves that our students are a closely connected team. It’s a big master’s programme but still small enough so that all the students know each other, and we really want to foster the students to do team work together. We would also like to get more involvement from the actual games industry. We have connections to different studios in Austria and Germany, but after the pandemic is over we’d really like to have people come to our university for shared workshops and other shared experiences where students can meet people from the industry.
What got you initially interested in video games?
I started playing video games from a young age. I think I got my first video game at the age of ten and was madly in love ever since. My family was also greatly supportive of that hobby. My mother even got interested in the Gameboy as well and started playing. So, there was always something to talk about and that stuck with me up to an academic level and when it came to my master’s thesis I thought: why does nobody write about video games? I had been completely unaware of the field of Game Studies before and once I had discovered that, I had to continue that way.
What is your favourite video game?
That is a question that really should not be answered. There are, of course, games I like but I think of video games the same way I think about books and films: if you have one favourite, you might neglect or miss out on other really cool things out there. It’s the same with genres. If you have a favourite genre, you might not see many things that are along the roadside and that’s not a person I want to be. I want always be open to new experiences and open to things I might not see if I only have one favourite direction. I’m all eyes and ears for the new exotic, for the new experimental game that might give me a new idea for more books.
Felix Schniz graduated from the University of Mannheim as a Bachelor of Arts in English and American studies. He then joined the Master’s programme Cultural Transformations of the Modern Age: Literature and Media. After finishing his Master’s degree he joined the Department of English at the University of Klagenfurt. He is co-founder of the master’s programme Game Studies and Engineering and has recently published his first monograph “Genres und Videospiel”.