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Gaming the City - by Thijs Jeursen

What better topic to research during lockdown than videogames and relationship with urban life? When cinemas and theaters were forced to close their doors, many people turned to home entertainment during periods of self-isolation. As a whole, the gaming industry saw a significant increase during this period: gaming platform Steam recorded an all-time high of 23.6 million average users in 2020 and continues its momentum today.

I have been interested in the relationship between digital gaming – as an increasingly important everyday pastime and leading global cultural industry – and everyday urban life for quite some time. Thanks to the Centre for Urban Studies (CUS) of the University of Amsterdam, which funded a remote research stay at the CUS in the beginning of 2021, I was able to finally study this subject. I dedicated this 3-month fellowship to improving my research proposal which aims to further our understanding the relationship between digital games and gaming on urban life. Both the production and consumption of games have a strong urban dimension: the gaming industry is largely concentrated in a number of cities; many popular digital games feature urban landscapes; and gamer communities are most active in cities.

Examining digital play in cities involves attending to spatial, technological and socio-cultural transformations shaping the intersection of gaming and urban life, analyzing the emplaced urban meaning of gameplay and design. Understanding these shifts also involves studying the types of community-making and mobilization that emerge around and through gaming, exploring what types of collective identity and action emerge within massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), and when such collectives translate to spaces outside the games, including both online spaces (e.g. Twitchchat, subreddits) and forms of “urban commoning”. Our project studies the formation of such collectivity within the global political and economic context of gaming: game sales, game-based merchandising and gamer data mining generate huge profits for transnational corporations, while gaming also attracts government attempts at regulatory control, from censoring specific games to demanding access to user data.

Thijs Jeursen

Discussing this proposal and sharing this interest with supervisors Prof. Rivke Jaffe and dr. Carolyn Birdsall, enabled me to develop an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to studying digital gaming. In our online meetings and collaborations, we sought to connect urban studies and media studies approaches to “playful digitalization”; extending urban studies’ critical engagement with the digitalization of urban life to include the domain of play, while extending media studies approaches to gaming by incorporating an explicit urban framing.

Although I was very much looking forward to being physically embedded in the Centre’s facilities and research team, almost all of our discussions and meetings took place on Zoom. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be able to outline and pursue my own research interests, and continue to work with extremely motivating and inspiring people post-PhD. Thanks to the CUS, I was able to develop alternative research projects (which, after five years of studying urban insecurity, is a much welcome change) and examine new avenues and creative research projects.

Currently, we are exploring opportunities to submit our proposal, as well as continue to develop our research activities. The proposed research aims to examine the interactions between game producers, gamers, and urban space to examine what new forms of collectivity are emerging through urban gaming. Gaming reconfigures how urban residents interact: where they encounter each other (if at all) and under which circumstances. It often involves a retreat or escape from public space, with gameplay concentrated in the private space of bedrooms and living rooms. This shift indoors may be driven by urban fear or a lack of connection to other urban inhabitants. Yet gaming, particularly within multi-player games (MPGs) and mass multiplayer online games (MMOs), involves participating in and co-creating new virtual public spaces.

Being able to expand my network and work together with researchers with various academic backgrounds has been vital for my motivation and enthusiasm for academia, and I would again very much like to thank the CUS for supporting me in times of self-isolation. Ideally, we are able to “play together”, as a collaborative digital methodology, sometime in the near future.

About Thijs Jeursen

Dr. Thijs Jeursen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Law, Economics and Governance at Utrecht University. Thijs works on political belonging and digital technologies in urban space, and engages with perspectives from media and critical data studies in order to address broader questions of inequality and urban futures.