Víctor Navarro-Remesal and Thiago Falcão | Keywords in Play, Episode 11

“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

Víctor Navarro-Remesal is a media scholar specialized in games. He teaches History of Videogames and Interactive Narrative at Tecnocampus, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and Game Design at UOC. He’s the author of ‘Libertad dirigida: Una gramática del análisis y diseño de videojuegos’ (Shangrila, 2016) and ‘Cine Ludens: 50 diálogos entre el juego y el cine’ (Editorial UOC, 2019), as well as the editor of ‘Pensar el juego. 25 caminos para los game studies’ (Shangrila, 2020). His research interests are player freedom, Zen-inspired games, gêmu, and game preservation. He is one of the founding members of DIGRA Spain.

Monográficos dedicados al videojuego en revistas académicas

Ludonarrativas: La complejidad narrativa en los videojuegos

Thiago Falcão is Professor of Digital Media Communication Course and Professor of the Graduate Program in Communication at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB). He holds a PhD in Communication and Contemporary Culture from the Federal University of Bahia and was a PDSE/Capes fellow at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has a Post-Doctorate in Audiovisual Communication from Anhembi Morumbi University in São Paulo/SP. Thiago currently researches themes regarding politics and entertainment, with special attention to the ties between the Brazilian esports scene and cultural dynamics associated to neoliberalism / late capitalism.

Link for the Special Issue CFP “The Colonization of Play by Neoliberal Capitalism

Rede Metagame: Brazilian Research network on Games and Political Culture


As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.

Critical Distance is a community-supported project. Support us on Patreon, and join the discussion on Discord!

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart

Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association. As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Darshana: Víctor Navarro and Thiago Falcão, really happy to have you here for this episode of Keywords in Play. Can we get a brief introduction to yourselves in your own words?

Víctor: Did you want to go first Thiago?

Thiago: So yeah, sure. Hey, guys. Hi for the audience. I’m a Brazilian researcher working on game studies for well, a bit more than a decade right now. I’m a professor in the course of digital media in the Federal University of Paraíba. All of our biggest universities in Brazil are state-sponsored, so I’m in one of those. And I am in the field of Communication and Media Studies right now. I started on game studies by researching agency. So, I was very obsessed with the theme. For a while, I wrote my dissertation on agency, trying to crossbreed the term coming from the discipline of game studies, but also taking it through a more sociological understanding I used at the time, I was very caught up with Bruno Latour’s, actor network theory. So, I was really interested in theme. So it’s a theory that discusses agency profoundly. So, I wanted to see how it happened in virtual worlds and I discussed the World of Warcraft. Once someone said to me, everyone discusses World of Warcraft once in their lives, right? Right now, my work kind of took a shift. And I’m delving into political waters, maybe because of the situation that’s been in place in Brazil, in the holy war in some fashion, but, but specifically in Brazil, because of our government. So I’m dealing with the cultural politics of video games right now. specifically looking at Esports, Esports, the Brazilian eSports scene.

Víctor: My name is Víctor, Víctor Navarro. I’m a lecturer and researcher here in Macedonia, Barcelona, I read my dissertation in 2013. So it’s been quite a long time. And I’ve been working on game studies for more or less a decade, with more than a decade. I’ve seen how game studies have started to take shape in Spain and how people have started to come together. So, we will discuss that later. And I come from communication as well, when I tried to defend video games as a valid object of study, I had to sort of make room for it in communication. And I consider myself to be primarily a media scholar. But that’s one of the ways of looking at video games as part of a wider and bigger picture. I’m a media scholar working in games and have been working in video games, and sometimes analogue games for a decade, decade-plus, and my interests are very varied, actually. I mean, my dissertation was focused on freedom almost by, by, purely by chance, because I ended up discussing freedom, mostly from a formal perspective, but I’ve been following my curiosity so to speak, for this decade of Britain on post-colonial video games together with Beatriz Pérez Zapata. I have a huge interest in, in Japanese video games as Japanese and as transnational products. Recently, I’ve been looking into the realities of video games in Europe, because I think that’s something we tend to ignore. We discuss Japanese video games, we discuss American video games, and we ignore the realities of video games as products and as creations here in Europe. And I tend to research very weird stuff. One of my interests is in video game preservation, especially in failure. So, I tend to look for these holes and these, these places that have been kind of ignored. So that makes it very exciting as a researcher, but it makes it very hard for me to describe my main focus, and my perspective and my position and I don’t consider myself to be neither formal is neither political. This is kind of the discussion at the moment. It’s kind of the ludology versus narratology of the moment. And I think I’m kind of in-between everything. So, I will gladly discuss all those people’s research in this episode other than my own. But yeah, the last thing I can say is that I’ve been working on Zen modes, Zen in video games and slow gaming for the best part of the past five years.

Darshana: Can each of you like kind of tell me a little bit about the history of games research and the way that it relates to other disciplines? And some of the key theorists and thinkers that are being discussed at the moment?

Thiago: This is an interesting question because I’ve been trying to look at Brazilian game studies from a historical perspective, right now, even though I’ve been saying that Brazilian game studies are difficult to grasp. And there’s a reason for that, and it’s what drives my work right now. You see, when we as a community, we started researching video games in the middle of the 2000s. Our early works, they date from between 2003, 2007 we were absolutely, as a community, as a country, we were absolutely obsessed with the ideas that were stemming from the Northern Hemisphere. So, we wanted to be able to discuss ludology and narratology, because we felt that was the place to be. And I think Brazil, stayed with that for a long time. Brazilian games scholars, of course, they stayed with that type of discussion for a long time. It really shows up in their work. Again, this is what drives me to my current work, because there’s no history of video games, and video games studies. I’m being unfair, there are some scholars that work in that area, of course, but they are a few, a handful of scholars. And most of our scholars, they were trying to discuss philosophy, the philosophy of computer games, of video games. And you see, there’s a problem with that. And you kind of foreshadowed the problem, Darshana, because you said, well, this is an Anglophone podcast, and even though you’re talking to two people, from Latin backgrounds, if I may say that about you, Víctor, this is still in English, right? And for people in Brazil, it’s been very difficult to actually produce an output on research because of this exclusivity, and I’m going to call that I don’t know if that’s the best word for it. But this exclusivity of English in academia. So, there are some people that are starting to discuss this, this problem, this, this question, but we were trying, all the time, we were trying to do philosophy in Portuguese. And we had, again, I’m being generalistic, right? It was difficult to actually strike a dialogue with people from the Northern Hemisphere. So even though we have an output of research in Brazil, we have scholars and we have what I would call a tradition, but, but it’s not a very grounded one. We are not particularly cited worldwide abroad, because of this, because of this difficult in writing in English. So that gives us a real problem. You see, it’s a very concerning problem with the, the idea of coloniality, right? We tend to forget our roots, and we tend to align ourselves as scholarship with the Northern Hemisphere. And we are trying, right now there’s a lots of scholars right now that are embarking in this attempt to correct is to reckon it right? We are trying to address this problem. So, there’s a lot of people who are working in Brazilian communities inside the video games, the idea of what is played for the Brazilian people? Well, the idea that all of these concepts we’ve been discussing for decades, they resonate within us in a very particular way. And it isn’t really fulfilling to just discuss European or North American scholarship without thinking about how it resonates and how it happens in Brazil. So, this sort of sums up how the Brazilian game scholars community have been looking at video games right now.

Víctor: I will say we have a similar situation here in Spain. In regards to this, I’m going to call it the import business when we started we are basically a bunch of misfits. And the situation in Spain is quite weird because we have three very early and very, very admirable pioneers with Clara Fernandez-Vara, Susana Tosca, and Miguel Sicart. But they moved northwards, they went to the north, and they went to America, they went to Denmark. So, they became kind of nationalized there. And when we found out about them, they were already names coming from America and coming from Denmark. So they paved the way for people here in Spain, and they have done an amazing work and they visit us and they work with us. But in that foundational moment, they had to leave, they were forced to leave actually, by their Universities but it’s not my story to tell. But their situation was not one of looking for opportunities abroad because they wanted to travel abroad, but basically looking for a space where they could discuss video games. My situation was not that different actually, when I when I enrolled my Ph. D. program, it was in 2007. I had to defend video games as a valid object within communication. As I said before, there’s a paper from 2014 by Antonio José Planells, called ‘The Emergency of Game Studies as a Distinct Discipline’ in Spanish ‘La Emergencia de Los Game Studies Como Disciplina Propia’. And at that time, he post that video games were becoming a valid object and that game studies were kind of arising in the country. That never came to happen sadly, I will say and I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but we have been always kind of slipstreaming behind the North, or slipstreaming behind America and behind the Nordic countries or behind England. So, it’s been a situation where lots of people kind of discovered that they can analyze video games in university. And they try to import game studies, into their departments into the realities. So, what they look for, is normally the big names, normally the big debates, the big references, the big things they have to use, as kind of a self-validation process. So, we have been going on for the best part of the past two decades here. But not until recently, we started kind of coming together and working on special issues and trying to make visible the reality of the lack of game studies in Spain, so to speak. We basically publish in English that I mean, we can publish in Spanish like, we don’t have a journal for game studies in Spanish. And when we have made special issues of focus on video games, we normally do it in journals that are very international oriented. So that solves the problem and doesn’t solve it at the same time. I mean, we do have theories and debates and figures that we look up to. But we have been kind of trying to be part of this international community before creating a national community. And I think that that’s the main problem with countries that are not the Northern countries or America, or I don’t know your experience in Australia, but maybe it’s kind of similar. I think video games are still trying to look and find their place in academia. I mean, it’s baffling. We are we are still there. Things are looking bright at the moment. But we have been in that situation for, for a long time. And I still see PhD students, candidates, kind of narrowing their research and their framework to the decades between 2010 to Nordic and American names. And we are still trying to create a mean, there’s nothing essential about Spanishness, but a Spanish game studies space. So yeah, it’s still a work in process.

Darshana: It’s really interesting in so far as you’re both talking about the history and the disciplinary formation of what makes it possible to talk about games in the academy in various parts of the world in various linguistic communities. And that is part of why we’re having this conversation at all. Very excitingly. There are two new DiGRA chapters that you respectively have been involved in the formation of. Do you think that that coalesces or brings together some of the forces that you’ve been talking about that have prevented people from being able to devote intellectual activity to this medium? Yeah be really interested to hear about what was involved in people deciding let’s, let’s start a chapter in each region and each country.

Víctor: I don’t know about you, Thiago. But I think the positive side of this in Spain, we have been so long without our chapter or without any kind of association, that there might have been something good in there. And the good part is that we are very internationalist. We like to travel, we like to conferences in other countries, we like to publish in Spanish, it’s one of the motivations that brought me into academia. But the problem we detected almost 10 years ago is that we still have to fight to be part of the Spanish universities, Spanish academia. And we still find people, mainly PhD students who are being, how to put it, they have a supervisor’s not belonging to games or to media specialized in games. And they are kind of lost. I didn’t want to say adrift, but my the word I was thinking of was adrift. And we need some kind of structure if we want to continue being part of the international community. But from a stronger perspective, and with a stronger contribution, we need a national structure. And that’s the rationale behind the Spanish sector. And that’s something that we have been discussing. Spain is very, very different in every region, and people are kind of disconnected. And it’s very hard to bring us all together. But these conversations have been going on for many years now. And we have always said, when it’s something like DiGRA, we need a chapter within an association. And it’s so good to say it finally happened. I don’t know about, you, Thiago?

Thiago: Now I, hearing you talk about Spain, like that makes me think that it is very much like Brazil because I have a very much a light tale to tell about Brazilian game studies. The first thing about it is we don’t have game studies as an area, right, because as I was saying, research science in Brazil is largely state-sponsored. So, we have councils that actually fund universities, and these councils, we have two agencies, or the National Research Development Council and I wouldn’t know how to translate the other one, but two agencies, and they fund the universities, and they actually decide what areas they want to fund. There are no video games in any of those areas. So, it’s a void, it’s a desert, we have this bit of appropriation of the matter when we took video games and brought them for example, into the communication field. So, I can say that the whole DiGRA chapter in Brazil is in the communications field, me, Suely Fragoso, Gabriela Kurtz, Ivan Mussa, Mariana Amaro and Letícia Perani. They are all PhDs and students of communication. It’s still, I just got this reveal from an article from one of our journals the last night, and it said, wow, you have to explain why video games are communication, or else and the famous reviewer to write. So why did we try and put this together? Because we wanted institutionality? Right? I’ve been saying this to the Brazilian audience, for a while now. We need institutionality to be able to actually fight for funding. It boils down to that, right? It boils down to having money to do research, having money to fund students, having money to send people abroad. The idea of the chapter is to help this institutionality that it’s, it’s very shy at the moment in Brazil. And I think it’s there, I think for what Víctor tells us, it’s very like it’s very, the problem is the same. And I’ll be frank with one thing, the fact that many of the Brazilian students, they still try to establish a dialogue with the Northern Hemisphere, instead of looking to Brazil. It still represents a problem because I know I repeat myself but if you don’t look at yourself, you don’t know what I are your fragilities and your strengths, right? So if you do a bibliometrical study of Brazilian game studies, you will not see a picture of Brazil represented in there, you’ll see a picture of Northern philosophy or Western philosophy, right. So, this is why we’re trying to put together this, this chapter and well, and so on.

Víctor: Yeah. And I think I think each chapter has a very special kind of stability that you don’t get with a single individual. If it were up to myself, I will live in a cave and with no internet connection, and I will be a hermit and I will be perfectly happy. But someone had to do it. A chapter is something that outlives, I mean, not literally, I hope to get 80 or 90 at least, but the founding members are not going to be the only people working in this chapter. The idea is to create something that people can inherit, and something people can use and something people can have in their presentation cards, so to speak, and say, “no, no, I’m part of this community, and this community supporting me financially and intellectually and even emotionally”. It’s very hard to do research. I’m going to go into an attack and a rant on neoliberalism now, but I think we are not supposed to be islands, we are supposed to be people talking constantly to each other. Sometimes collaborating, often collaborating, sometimes working all by ourselves and lonely and like this, crazy writers that never see the light of day. But academia is supposed to be built on the shoulders of giants and through a constant dialogue. So, if you want to have a dialogue, as Thiago said, you need to talk to the people that is surrounding you, because we have mistaken online availability with real presence and real conversation. And I’m very happy to do Skype or zoom with PhD students, with colleagues, I asked my colleagues constantly for help and for ideas and suggestions. And that’s something that still demands kind of return to geography, so to speak, a return to traveling. And nowadays with a pandemic we, at least I dream of trains and I dream of driving my car up to a friend’s house and and visiting people and spending a lovely afternoon and discussing things we are reading. And that kind of structure, institutionality Tiago said, I think that’s a very good word is, again, something that you don’t get when you try to be a rock star, or the only scholar of your country or that lonely hero that Umberto Eco warns against many years ago.

Darshana: Can you talk about some of the current trends that each DiGRA chapter is seeing right now? What’s the exciting research? And what are the kind of like, really driving questions that the scholars are asking

Thiago: As for Brazil, discussion about philosophy, and mechanics. There’s something Víctor said in the beginning of the podcast that was perfect that the battle between formalism and politics, they are the new dispute between narratology and ludologies, as in the importance video game studies are actually dispensing to it right now. It isn’t different in Brazil, we have a bunch of scholars working on mechanics and this more formalistic processes and aspects of video games. And there is this political trend, which has been going on for a while now and it stems from the political situation of the country. So, we are trying to deal with toxicity and toxic masculinity in video games. So, these are two excellent topics to discuss. And of course, neoliberalism.

Víctor: Yeah, I think you’re onto something. When I started, my main motivation to study video games was that I had theoretical tools to analyze every media I loved, like music, punk music, I love punk. So, I had theory and punk comics, I had theory and comic books, film, screenwriting, animation, I had theory on that, when I wanted to dig for meaning in video games, I had nothing. And that’s something that Clara Fernández-Vara says in the ‘Introduction to Game Analysis’, we lacked the tools. That’s when this push for formulised tools arose. And that’s where it came from. And I think that was a necessary step. But we look for the tools to dig for meaning. So, you cannot really separate that if you want to criticize neoliberalism and colonialism. You want to know how the media operates, the medium in particular, how these medium operates, and how things work in video games. This sort of artificial divide we are seeing at the moment, I’m glad to say is not taking place in, in Spain. I mean, again, we have been working separately for many years, but there’s been lots of exchanges and if there are a unifying forces, or unifying keywords, I can say, I am comfortable in saying that we are mostly from Humanities and Social Sciences. And we have had official state-funded sanctions projects on the Great Recession on the past decade’s crisis, economic crisis and neoliberalism, and how that reflected in society. But going back to my motivation to study video games, I think that I don’t want to call it Film Studies envy, but I do, I do envy Film Studies, in how they can face anything they have in front of them. Like you can focus on, also you can focus on social aspects of representation, you can focus on studies of contemporary cinema and of intertextuality is, and we seem kind of mentally locked into very old ideas of media and media panics or moral panics. Like, in order to justify what we are doing, we have to either discuss the dangers like moral panics, or you have to celebrate video games as contributing something to society. I will like to discuss video games as meaning, as something that has meaning and focus on that, and then look for making it very complicated. I hope this makes sense. Let’s look for effects later. We are too obsessed with effects like video games are good. Video games were bad a few years ago. And that’s why we’re still kind of defending the medium. But I think that we need to look for meaning. And if you want to dig for meaning, and you need stuff like psychoanalysis, we have psychoanalysts in the in the book I edited ‘Pensar el Juego’, thinking play or thinking the game. We have engineers, we have philosophers, we have heaps of people from the humanities, and people that normally don’t write about video games, I invited them to give us their perspective and to discuss or know creative industries and cultural industries and have these cultural studies perspectives. So, we are very weird mix, again I said that we are a bunch of misfits, and I will hold to that. But I think we are a bunch of misfits coming from this romantic idea of the humanities and this romantic idea of meaning, core meaning. But meaning as something valuable. We look at the object, we look at video games, and then we study society. And then we study how things take shape. And, and, for example, one of the things we have to do in the future is to contribute to the writing of a more complete history of video games in Spain, we are too dependent on the history of American video games on how I know The Legend of Zelda came out in 1986. But it wasn’t available in Spain until 1989. And you have people remembering having played the game in 1986.

Thiago: Yeah, the thing I’ve seen a couple of weeks ago was an argument about the industry and how the industry it kind of doesn’t risk by developing new games that appeal to new audiences. It was a very well made argument, but it was so off the point because it’s not at all how it works in what we call the Global South, right? And how we call the boundaries that were colonized that have the colony as their background. Because as we see it right now, here in Brazil, these video games, the video games catered to the Northern Hemisphere, and people actually will think, well, I cannot afford to play these video game because of the price. And I mean, I’m not talking about consoles and triple-A games. I’m talking precisely about games that rely on microtransactions right? So, you think well, if you spend I don’t know $40 on some type of virtual good in video game in the United States. You cannot hope people will actually spend this kind of money because $1 is right now 575 Reals, Reals, which is a lot right now Real is very low right now on its value. So, you cannot expect people from here to actually consume, right, these games, yet they do and they really put everything in these games, when we talk about the CFP, which is called the colonization of play, exactly follows the idea that play has been appropriated by capitalism is what says in the CFP play has been appropriated by capitalism in many of its dimensions. And we want to look at it in the Global South, because these appropriation how capitalism, overall, new liberalism, how it appropriates play in the Northern Hemisphere is much more pernicious and insidious in countries that cannot hope to consume these goods. You have many routes to the problem, but I’ll narrow it down to desire. So, you have many social phenomena that stems from that desire, and they are explained by these relationship between neoliberalism and play, right. So, we have, for example, both of you being well, I don’t know if you follow soccer or football in there Darshana, but Víctor being from Barcelona, I’m sure he knows of it. Maybe he doesn’t like it, but he sure knows about it, because I do know about it here in Brazil, it’s not something you can flee from. I’m talking about soccer because or football, I don’t know. I’m talking about football, because, because I want to stress how the football players they behave. And they behave like superstars spending lots of money. And if you look at Brazilian Esports players, right now, they play the game as football players. So, they are posing with models with Lamborghinis, and well, we want to tackle the whole of the problem, or at least as much as we can, in this special issue, both discussing, of course, the Brazilian aspect of the of it. And we’re really hoping at having some pieces from abroad. As I said, I’m gonna personally translate these or oversee the translation. Because we are in this attempt of establishing this dialogue, right. So, I think it’s important both to have Brazilian scholars speaking there. And, of course, the audience and scholars from abroad.

Víctor: So, kind of a detox moment, looking for what we need to tell our own story, are looking for every tool we can use for this. And again, it’s a jack of all trades, master of none. Yeah, I’ll share with you a list of special issues I put together a few weeks ago, and some of them are in English, some of them are in Spanish, but you can check it and use Google Translate. And I think that that’s a very good picture of the past decade, the book is in Spanish. So again, quite a bit hard to read it if you don’t speak either Portuguese, or French or Italian, and will direct people towards this last special issue in L’Atalante, for L’Atalante. Not because I was a guest coordinator. But because I think it’s a very good picture of how people are debating ludonarrative complexity, which again, is kind of a crystallization of this mixed perspectives on how we didn’t have this ludology versus narratology moment and how we don’t really have these politically motivated versus formalised debate at the moment on how we mix and match everything together. But I think we do have work and we do have stuff people can read. And we hope the chapter is something to celebrate, and to bring people here and to connect us to every one of you. So very happy to be here. And thank you for having us.

Thiago: It’s been a pleasure and an honour.

Darshana: The honour is ours. Thank you so much for an amazing conversation and all the best with the projects and the chapters.

Thiago: Cheers

Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.