Interview by Marie-Christine Lavoie
When approaching professors and professional members of TAG, I was told I should consider interviewing student members about the Lab and the forms of knowledge they create. Therefore, I sought to interview two student members from different disciplinary backgrounds. Unfortunately, the other student was unavailable for an interview before the 15 of December. If possible, we will conduct our interview at a later date and I shall update this post to demonstrate the plurality of voices found within TAG.
In this interview for Mess and Method [Fall 2015, “What is a Media Lab?” edition], Marie-Christine Lavoie speaks with an anonymous student member from Concordia’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG). This interview seeks to understand how different members understand and define TAG, and how the lab produces knowledge. Overall, this interview seeks to obtain an inside look at how TAG functions within Academia. This interview was conducted through email correspondence.
ML: Hello and thank you for agreeing to this interview. If possible, could you briefly explain the benefits, or the reason, for remaining anonymous?
A: Note that this won’t actually be anonymous, even if you don’t include my name, because of the other information you’ve asked for and the small size of the lab. It’ll be easy to guess who I am. Knowing that, I’m self-censoring to some extent because it’s dangerous not to. Professors don’t like to acknowledge this, but they hold a fair bit of power over us as students, since they’re the ones who mark our papers, write us letters of recommendation, sign off on RA contracts, grant us permission to use the lab, and so on and so forth. Those hierarchies make it very difficult for a student (or staff member) to be open and honest about their thoughts or experiences. Marginalized people, and students who are not Canadian citizens and/or don’t have access to scholarships or support from their families, and so are relying on RA contracts for their survival, are particularly vulnerable.
ML: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview considering these circumstances.
ML: Can you introduce yourself? What lead you to this field of research, and what kind of work happens on a daily basis at TAG?
A: I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the Humanities program, but I’ve been with the lab for…6 years now? Something like that. I got involved with the lab through the student-run 5a7s. Eventually I was asked to work on a research assistant contract, which sort of made me a member by default. I got involved in games for two reasons. The first was that a lot of my friends in my undergrad played videogames, and some of them played a LOT, and I wanted to know why. I’d mostly stopped playing games myself, aside from the occasional round of Mario Kart, and we had very few games in my house growing up, so I think I was curious. At the time I was doing a Fine Arts degree, and feeling like the art world was this really insular thing, composed mostly of artists talking to other artists and art critics, but not the general public (sound familiar?). I wanted to work with a medium that more people could relate to and access, and games seemed like a good candidate. I knew almost nothing about games at that point, or game studies, or media studies, so it was a steep learning curve when I started my MA based on a project about digital role-playing games.
ML: Could you explain what TAG is and what it means to you?
A: That’s a tough question. I used to have what in retrospect seems like a very optimistic and naïve view of TAG. Mostly it seemed like a great way to meet people and get involved in interesting projects. It provided a lot of opportunities and a sense of community that I wouldn’t have had if I’d just stuck to my MA program. That’s still the case, but I’m much more aware of the costs and limitations of the space and the institution it’s a part of. I like the way Sarah Ahmed puts it, “we learn about worlds from the difficulties we have transforming them.” Thanks to that, I’m more aware of the different ways that women and men, for example, are treated, and of the hypocrisy that is so prevalent in the humanities, where people tend to see themselves and their work as progressive almost by default, while remaining completely unaware of their own privilege/power or the role they play in perpetuating an abusive and exploitative system. I’ve seen how people get pushed out of the space, and silenced in the name of protecting reputations and avoiding “conflict.” I also feel like TAG is somewhat unwittingly playing along with the neoliberalization and corporatization of the university. We’re benefiting from the fact that games are “big business,” which means that we’re able to attract funding where other research centres or fields cannot, but it increasingly feels like that funding comes with conditions and/or tacit pressure to collaborate with the industry in some way or another, and that really frustrates me. Public-private partnerships always sound good on paper, but in the end all we’re doing in funneling more public money into private hands, a process that is eroding democracy and further impoverishing people who rely on public services and social support networks. That doesn’t mean of course that there aren’t lots of benefits that TAG provides to non-commercial initiatives or organizations, or that there aren’t people within TAG that are critical of these processes, but it’s the big picture that really worries me.
ML: TAG stands for “Technoculture, Arts and Games”, but what do you make of this name? What does it mean in the context of the work you are doing in this lab?
A: It’s a pretty vague title, and I guess that’s positive in the sense that it allows for more flexibility and breadth in the kind of research that fits under the TAG label. But honestly I’ve never been very interested in defining art or games, let alone technoculture, because every time I see someone try to impose a fixed definition on these things it ends out being exclusionary and/or limiting rather than helpful.
ML: So then what do you think of TAG’s label as “an interdisciplinary centre for research”?
A: To me it means that people come from very different backgrounds and disciplinary fields, or that they don’t belong to any one field in particular. I think it’s how things should be to be honest. Disciplinary silos are a result of institutional pressures and the need to distinguish yourself from the “competition,” but I don’t think they’re helpful overall. In fact, they can be incredibly harmful, especially when they help to justify the complete elimination of critical discourse or thinking from a curriculum.
ML: TAG is often referred to as a Game lab, what do you think of this definition? Additionally, is TAG unique compared to other labs on and off campus?
A: Well it makes it clear which letter is being prioritized in the TAG acronym. I don’t think the definition is inappropriate or inaccurate, although it could definitely be acting as a barrier to anyone who’s not primarily interested in games. It’s hard to know how TAG compares to other labs because I haven’t spent nearly as much time in other labs. It definitely feels different to me than other spaces, but I have no idea whether or not it’s unique.
ML: As a spaces involved in the formation of knowledge, how does the surrounding labs affect TAG?
A: Occasionally there are collaborations with other labs or people who move back and forth between them, but for the most part there doesn’t seem to be much interaction. I think in some ways labs are often made to compete with one another for space and resources, and that combined with the fact that we are all subjected to productivity metrics that force us to concentrate on our own work at the expense of forming collaborations or taking on new projects makes it more difficult to form lasting relationships with other labs. The sense I get is that TAG is the “golden child” of Concordia’s upper administration, both because it helps to attract new students and is working in an area that the government sees as a key site of economic development.
ML: Bruno Latour explains in Laboratory Life that Laboratories produce knowledge that can become facts and/or artifacts. What kind of knowledge or facts does TAG output? If you had access to different equipment or facilities, would this knowledge, this output, change?
A: That’s hard to talk about succinctly—it’s all over the place. Certainly people are learning how to make games, and we’re also practicing and experimenting with different ways of talking about games. For me though, I feel like the most important knowledge I’ve gained/produced has been mostly about the internal politics of the university, the politics of games, and how these relate to broader power structures. TAG is a place where I can see how these dynamics play out, and I can analyze them based on knowledge I’ve acquired outside or on the margins of the university, mostly through interactions with other people and the things I’ve read online. But I wouldn’t say that this is the case for everyone, or even most people. It’s certainly not the kind of knowledge that is being officially sanctioned or published—if anything, it’s feels like it’s being repressed.
I actually think it’s a mistake to reduce “knowledge production” to writing. It’s even worse to reduce it to writing that conforms to academic standards and protocols, like the peer-reviewed journal article or the book chapter. Even though TAG does produce those things, I personally see this as the least important form of knowledge work we do. I know this makes me a bad academic, but I hate writing for other academics, according to all the unspoken codes about how you should or should not say things. It’s incredibly restrictive, it makes it almost impossible for me to write about what I really care about, and it makes everything I write inaccessible to all but a few elites. The knowledge work that I do that I really care about are my blog posts, Facebook comments, conversations, resource lists, lectures. It’s the articles and videos that I pass on to friends—because even if we don’t produce those things ourselves, serving as a conduit to alternative narratives and critical analysis is important work. It’s the objects I make (or try to make), like the game I’m working on about gentrification, and the experiences I create by organizing and running events. All of this matters so much more to me than journal articles, and I’m going to resist writing them, because I think the way we value and rank knowledge, the way we decide what “counts” as knowledge, is broken. We’re all being held hostage–because everyone knows that your academic career is dependent on your publication count–but we’re also the ones reinforcing that system by playing along and following the rules.
I wish TAG would play a more active role in advocating for alternative forms of knowledge production. if we’re going to change this broken system, which by the way is incredibly profitable for major publishers that are benefiting from all this unpaid labour, we need an organized, sustained campaign. As students, we also need reassurance from professors that they won’t pressure us to publish or punish us for not following the standard academic protocols, that they will make efforts to change how hiring committees work whenever and wherever they have the power to do so, and that they’ll support us if we decide to take the fight to the upper admin. I realize this is wishful thinking, but I do think that this is what’s necessary if we want to see substantial changes in how the system works, and who benefits from it. I don’t think that new equipment or facilities would have that much of an impact on the kind of knowledge that is being produced. I think a much bigger factor is the kind of cultural shift that has been taking place over the last year or two. But that’s a long, slow process.
ML: Could you talk about the kinds of projects TAG is involved with?
Oof there are tons. Off the top of my head, there’s speedrunning, “serious games” and education, virtual reality, Minecraft, modding, costume games, the Indie Megabooth project… Most of them I’m not qualified to talk about because I don’t know enough about them. TAG also runs a lot of workshops, game jams, public arcades, and so on. These things have an impact, although I sometimes wish that more of what we did was politically engaged and critical and formatted for the public rather than other academics. Gamerella is great but we need more of that, and not just for game-makers. There are so many conversations that we could be having but aren’t. There’s also the fact that TAG, like pretty much all academic institutions, has a tendency to colonize the work of surrounding communities, individuals, and organizations. It can do this because TAG members are often involved in projects outside of TAG, and it’s easy to classify the work they do as TAG projects, even if this isn’t how they are being presented or conceived of by the people actually doing the work. In some ways it’s the price we pay for the institutional support and resources TAG provides. Whoever has the money gets to call the shots, and take the credit.
ML: Could you talk about the TAG community? How has/could the community help you with your goals?
A: Parts of the TAG community are very close, and there is a lot of mutual aid and support, which is wonderful. There’s also lots of conflict and tension, people who are being unintentionally excluded or marginalized, and disagreements about how the space can or should be run. I feel like I’ve personally invested a lot in the community, and while there has been a lot of stress and pain that’s come out of that, and a lot of lost trust, it’s also been rewarding in a lot of ways. TAG is also a very fluid community, because as I mentioned so many of the people involved in TAG have connections outside of that, and so it’s hard to separate it completely from other spaces, like for example MRGS or Pixelles, just because there’s so much overlap in terms of who’s involved.
ML: Could you talk about the process involved in become a TAG member?
A: Well there are the explicit rules, and then there are the implicit rules. In my experience it’s the implicit rules that matter, since the explicit rules can usually be bent. Most of the TAG members are Concordia graduate students, and it’s definitely much easier to become a member if you have student status. It also helps if you’re a white cis man, although we’re making efforts to change that. It helps if you don’t have children, if you can afford to live in the city, if you’re able-bodied and neurotypical, if you like to drink beer and don’t need a job to support yourself, if you can speak and write English fluently, if you’ve played a lot of games since a young age, if you’re familiar with academic jargon, if your politics aren’t too radical, if you don’t mind being hit on, and so on. Technically the people who don’t fall into these categories are allowed to be members, but that doesn’t mean they’re able to participate or have access to the space to the same degree as people who do meet these criteria. Also most of this is never really talked about openly, even though there are a lot more conversations about these things now then there were when I first started coming to TAG, thanks in large part a lot of hidden, unacknowledged labour that’s been going on behind the scenes.
ML: What kind of equipment can you find in the TAG lab? Are they useful to everyone? If not, why is it so important to have these (sewing machines, 3D printer, computers, gaming consoles, etc.)?
A: Not all the equipment is useful to everyone, but that’s not necessarily a problem so long as someone is using it. I actually find the equipment most useful when it comes to running events or workshops. That said, most of what I borrow comes from Hexagram (or what used to be Hexagram), not TAG. If we need laptops, projectors, cables, consoles, keyboards, etc. it can be really helpful to have a large pool that we can draw from. I’m involved in running a small non-profit and we would never be able to afford this equipment otherwise, so in that sense it’s incredibly important. It’s just a shame that access to most of the equipment is limited to students or professors. One of the things I think students can do, aside from fighting these institutional restrictions, is to serve as conduits or relays so that people outside the institution, i.e. the general public, can also make use of this equipment.
ML: TAG recently relocated to a new, more open space. What kind of spaces do you have access to as a member of this lab? Do you feel the new space is better?
A: I like the new location. It’s a nicer room than the last one, it’s bigger, and we have a better view. Having the small side rooms is also useful when you want to have a private conversation and need somewhere to go. Personally I find it hard to get work done in TAG most of the time, because there are so many people there and I’m easily distracted. I don’t use the equipment much because I tend to just work on my laptop, so as long as there’s a free table and a chair I don’t really care about the layout—I’ll work anywhere.
Aside from the TAG rooms, I also have access to the Fine Arts Research Facilities (FARF) labs and work spaces. Having access to these is definitely useful, mostly just as relatively quiet places to meet and work. On a less formal level, I have access to other labs and conferences partly as a result of my affiliation with TAG. If I wanted to it would be fairly easy for me to go to just about any other game lab for a visit.
ML: Do you think these spaces are unique compared to other spaces? Is there anything you would change?
A: I don’t know if they’re unique. Maybe in some respects, but I also think they very much reflect what’s going on in the rest of the world. There are lots of things I would change if I could. I would try and eliminate, as much as possible, the hierarchies that exist, redistribute funding, and increase transparency in order to democratize the space. I would try to forge more connections with activist communities and marginalized populations that really need access to the things we so often take for granted. I would dismantle the university system and rebuild it, eliminating grades, exams, degrees and everything else that’s built on the myth of “meritocracy” but that ultimately ends out reinforcing structural oppression. But in order to do that we’d have to change the entire society.
ML: Could you tell us a bit about the project you have done, are doing, or are thinking of doing as part of TAG? How does someone’s project become a TAG project?
A: I’m looking at indie and alternative game communities/organizations, how they function internally, and what their role is in the broader videogame ecosystem. I’m on the board of the Mount Royal Game Society and got involved in that organization through the people I met at TAG, so in that sense my work there has always been connected to TAG, although as an organization we try to do things independently wherever possible. The problem is that as a small non-profit, we are always somewhat reliant on large institutional bodies or other holders of physical and financial capital in order to do the work that we do, i.e. organizing and running events. There’s also the fact that it’s only by incorporating my volunteer work into my PhD that I’m able to dedicate as much time to it as I do, and I’m worried about the implications of that relationship. We’re lucky that most of the time there are very few visible, explicit strings attached whenever we ask for money or support from TAG, but it’s still a form of dependency that is uncomfortable at best. So for me there are definitely benefits to being associated with TAG, but it’s not as straightforward as that question suggest.
ML: Thank you for taking the time to write this interview. Do you have anything you would like to say to our readers?
A: No problem. I don’t think I have anything to add. I’m not really happy with the projects I’ve done in the past, so I’d prefer not to talk about them, and the things I’m doing now are collective efforts, and not something I feel comfortable classifying as “TAG projects.”
ML: Again, thank you so much for this interview and best of luck during the end of semester.
 “TAG students also organize a weekly open house between 5 and 7 PM, where researchers and members of the community get together to play, talk and create game related works. These events are open to the public and we encourage anyone interested in becoming involved with the Centre to stop by and learn more. This is the first entry point to TAG and is the BEST way to meet people and learn about what we do” http://tag.hexagram.ca/about/
 “GAMERella offers the opportunity to meet more women, PoC and gender-non conforming people (as well as anyone who support minorities in the industry) interested in game development. TAG wishes not only to encourage underrepresented people and first-time game jammers to join in on the excitement, but also to celebrate the representation of diversity in the videogame community” http://tag.hexagram.ca/gamerella/
 The Mount Royal Game Society http://mrgs.ca/category/games/page/4/
 “Pixelles is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering more women to make and change games, founded by Tanya Short and Rebecca Cohen-Palacios. Pixelles organizes free monthly workshops, a mentorship program for aspiring women-in-games, game jams, socials and more” http://pixelles.ca/