Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Big Words and Small Ideas (and Reviewers)

I've been reading cartoons over at The Oatmeal, and I wish I could apply The Oatmeal's sensibilities to some reviewer comments I just received from ICA. Let us explore why. (Reviewer comments are a topic I have discussed before not once but twice at least.)

My paper title: Look at the Toilet I Made for My Avatar! Community-Building Through Meaningless Elements in MMOs.

Status: ACCEPTED at ICA. Bold, italics, all caps, you heard that right.

The "toilet" part is a narrative hook, something absurd but relevant and in the paper, designed to peak readers' curiosity. Really it's about the sub-title, and the toilet is an example of such a meaningless element. I use EverQuest II (EQII) as my exemplar. Communities are important.

Comments from first reviewer: None.
Summary: Useless.

Comments from second reviewer: "The author looks at the concept of transportation, which is operationalized..."
Summary: You're kidding, right? The word "transportation" is not actually in the paper. There is one paragraph that mentions the work of another researcher who mentioned in-game travel. I certainly don't operationalize it. Did this reviewer read the paper?

Comments from third reviewer: I don't even know where to start.
Summary: Useless cultural studies dreck. Not that all cultural studies is useless, I know they get defensive about that, some is quite good, but, to roughly quote my former advisor and cultural studies giant, Susan Douglas, there are a lot of universities that crank out useless and wrong-headed cultural studies people. (Michigan is not one of them, thank you, although my degree is not in cultural studies.)

Let us take two three comments from this reviewer.

Apparently, I "...reference Durkheim, Goffman, and Carey almost as an aside in an unconvincing discussion about ritual."

Except no. This reference is in the discussion. The discussion is supposed to be concise, and you don't explain every piece of literature in the same manner as you do in the literature review (the literature review is still concise, though). And, I discuss certain practices, such as online weddings, and also holidays in-game (so, the EQII version of Christmas, and Halloween, for example). Weddings are ritual. Holidays, especially and obviously ones with religious meaning or origin, are ritual. Weddings have deep historical and religious origins. Maybe the reviewer doesn't like how I discuss ritual, but it should be in there (all three theorists talk about ritual and community, so it is relevant). "Christmas", for example, does not exist in EQII. This is a fictional world with elves, there are no Christians. Jesus Christ and whatever Roman holiday Christmas usurped do not exist in this fictional world, nor are they part of the backstory. "Christmas" is turned into "Frostfell." It is still ritual, and it still has pro-community functions, just like our Christmas does.

The reviewer also says, "The paper would be substantially improved by more deeply immersing itself in the canonical cultural/critical literature on how cultural meaning is produced, appropriated, maintained, and challenged."
Uh, no. This is not a cultural/critical studies paper. I do not look at how "cultural meaning is produced, appropriated, maintained, [or] challenged" at all. That is not this paper. That could be some other paper with the same examples, but not this one. I look at how cultural meaning is used in order to create community by whatever terms you want to use to talk about it (groups, strong ties, bridging or bonding, etc.). But I especially consider how items which, in-game, do not have meaning for advancing one's character or for the narrative of the game, such as toilets or weddings or Frostfell, serve to advance community.

This reviewer also uses the words emic, etic, and ludic, none of which I like in the least. I do not even know what emic and etic mean, although I looked them up once. They are just not used in the literature of the academic areas where I reside. Using them identifies you as an insider to some evil academic cult, I am sure. Let us observe the sentence that contains them.

"The methods section makes an unconvincing case for the trade-offs between emic and etic approaches to participant observation..."

Given that I don't use the words emic or etic, I don't see how I can be making a case for the trade-offs between them. Pretty amazing that I manage that. I could be making a case for what they actually mean, but (after having looked them up), I'm not doing that. I just point out how some people use participant-observer to study virtual worlds and MMOs. Some people use other methods. I just reviewed my methods section, and there is no discussion of any trade-offs in any way at all. None. Given it's a lit review (but yes in the methods section, for the methods lit), should I....
  1. Review the literature about virtual worlds and MMOs; or,
  2. Ignore what other people have written about virtual worlds and MMOs.
I vote for #1. So do 5/5 PhDs (ok I asked myself five times, but I was amazingly consistent).

Emic: I don't actually have anything to say about Emic since I really, honestly, have no idea what the heck it means. I just don't. I have a PhD from one of the best universities in the world and I'm Phi Beta Kappa in college. This means, I am the man. But I don't know these words. I don't like them, I don't use them. I could tell you more about unicorns, and they're totally imaginary (sorry to tell you if you didn't know). Let us turn to... be seated for this... Wikipedia. I know, I know, I can hear your complaints already.

They are so... well I've been judgmental enough already... they are so useless on their own as to be joined as one in the same Wikipedia article. And the discussion page is much longer than the page itself (never a good sign, but always fun to go read it).

As the article points out, these are just fancy buzzwords for "insider" and "outsider" points of view. One might also use "subjective" and "objective" as well, but we don't really need to get into a discussion of "objective" right now.

Etic: I can't recall if this is the "insider" point of view, or the "outsider" point of view, and it's irrelevant since I should never see these words again. Nor should you. (It's the outsider point of view. Well that's what the Wikipedia page says, that could change at any time.)

Oh wait I am horribly wrong, this reviewer does not use the word "ludic." But they could have. Someone must have, somewhere, since I block out emic and edic and etic or whatever they are. I think edic and emic (e-mic?) must have reminded me of ludic, since they are all horrible words that should never be used, can be expressed with much more simple words that have actual meaning, and they all sound alike (I think they all rhyme with "BLARGH!").

I apologize to reviewer #3. You are, nonetheless, still misguided about the direction my paper should go in. (It is where it needs to go, already!) And you used... those two words I can't even recall how to spell them, they are so bad my brain refuses to contain them. They are cast out.

Ludic: This means gaming, or of games. There is nothing wrong with the word gaming, except it doesn't sound very cool or academic. "Ludic", which is Latinate, sounds much more official. This is the view of people who want to study games, and play them (heaven forbid), but don't take gaming seriously, so they need a fancy word to make their activities defensible.
"Are you a gamer?"
"Oh good Lord no! I'm ludic."
"Oh, I see." (Quietly shuffles far, far away from our ludic friend.)

When you pull this crap, the corpse of Mark Twain should rise from the grave and give you a good buggering. If you can't explain yourself in plain language, then don't explain yourself, but especially don't make up words to tart up what it is you're trying to say. If what you're trying to say is so boring that you need the word "ludic" to help you out then you shouldn't be speaking in the first place. Yes, I know, the originator of the word, Huizinga, is the ancient god of game studies, and we all have to bow down at his altar and cite his Homo Ludens work to show the reviewers we know what we are talking about, or else we're not in the cult actually knowledgeable about game studies and oh just reject my paper already. And if you think I'm too pedestrian because I used insider instead of... etic? emic? I don't care, whichever one, then please, please reject my paper, because I don't want to know you.

Edit: Here are some guidelines from George Orwell.
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.