Thoughts on the PCA / ACA National 2011 Conference

I finally got back home from the PCA / ACA National Conference. Although I have presented in national conferences, this was my first time presenting in a national popular culture and literature conference. It was an interesting experience, and one that I hope to repeat soon. For this post, let me share with you some comments from the talks I visited.


I drove 5 hours to get toSan Antonio, and arrived at2:30– just in time for the3:00 p.m.session. I went to the Game Studies panel that was supposed to feature a talk on using RPGs in the ESL classroom, another on Behavioral Modeling with Mods, another on The Role of Repetitive Play, and a fourth on Jenga as a Review. Sadly, two presenters were absent – one of them being the RPGs in the ESL classroom presenter, whom I was hoping would do some work derivative from mine. University of Oklahoma’s Ryan Bisel’s talk on Jenga was enlightening – not so much for the “using the game” part, I (and many ESL teachers) have used Jenga, and a large number of other games, in their classrooms, but the way he rationalized morals through gameplay was impressive and it will serve to inform a bit of my next presentation on games and values (in which I will focus on videogames, but will now also mention the values imparted by more traditional play). After he finished his talk I left the session to do the check-in at the hotel where I was staying, and returned for a later session.

At the6:30session there were supposed to be four panelists, but only one was in attendance, the second one presented by phone. The first panelist, Chris Seidl fromGeorgiaStateUniversity, talked about how the world of Fallout 3 was the structural bone of the game’s narrative. No doubt he was influenced by the large number of bloggers, developers, and scholars who focus on a very small number of open world games as the “only” type of videogame, to the exclusion of all other type of games. In short, it was just another re-statement of the old “first person open world rpgs are where it’s at” argument. The phone presenter, Paolo Ruffino, from the University of London, gave a phone talk on art and user generated content where he argued that people who use game engines like UDK or level editors are not really game designers because they are being constrained by the rules set by someone else’s engine. He seemed to completely forget that engines are tools to make games much like brushes are tools to make paints. While he’s making the argument that “real” designers make their own engines, why doesn’t he say that “real” designers build their own computers from scratch as well, and the OS in which the programming language that they will create to make the engine? After all, these “real” programmers are constrained with their engines to the limited capacities that someone else’s programming language and hardware creates, no?

At8:00 p.m.I went to the Romance section and I heard the first REALLY good presentations of the conference. Katherine Lee, fromIndianaStateUniversity, gave a talk on the romance novel and early Asian literature where she talked about some American romance author who had to go by a Japanese pen name to create authenticity for her romance novels. Angela Toscano from theUniversityofUtahgave a wonderful talk on pirates, paintings, cheating, and romance that I found to be an engaging talk. But the best talk of the day goes to Sarah Frantz, the romance area chair and a professor inFayettevilleStateUniversity. She talked about the history and evolution of the romance novel hero since the 1970s. It was a solid, engaging talk which drew from major works to make her case.

The fact that one of the romance hero archetypes is called “the rapetastic hero” also helped make it fun.

The next day kicked off with my presentation session at9:45. I didn’t attend the8:00 a.m.session. Although I was talking about videogames – namely Final Fantasy 8 and Lunar – I presented in the “romance” panel instead of the “game studies” panel. So I gave my paper on how the two aforementioned titles conform to the romance paradigms  and how the videogame medium can “evolve” romantic stories through interaction (transcript and PPR on my previous post). My argument was complimented by the paper on Shadow of the Colossus presented later that day, but I’ll talk about that later. After I presented, a young woman, Esther Guenat fromTempleCollege, gave a delightful talk about romance and how romance isn’t really romance sometimes, as it shifts into steampunk, urban, fantasy, and other genres – so in that sense the romance novel becomes a hybrid. She used Laurel K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series as one of the examples. After her, Maryan Wherry, a well known romance fiction scholar fromBlackHawkCollege, presented an interesting paper arguing that westerns are really romances for men and that romances are westerns for women. Although the concept is that each genre draws influence from the other, her approach referred to these hybrid texts not as hybrids, but as “genre bending texts”; an intriguing idea, as these texts aren’t really a new genre resulting from the mixture of western and romance as much as they are romances and westerns at the same time as they are romances or westerns. Her concluding comments were “So when is a western not a western? When it’s written by women for women”.

For the next session I went to a game studies panel, and I admit it was not as solid as I hoped it to be. The first presenter, Catherine Riley fromLouisianaStateUniversity, tried to do a closed reading of Heavy Rain by focusing on interactivity. Had the game design involved a higher level on interaction I’m sure that her interpretation focusing on control would have been lovely, but a game whose focus is narrative and the psychological connection created through the storytelling should be analyzed through a narrative lens that looks at narrative and self, not a ludic one that looks at self through interactivity. The second presentation in this session, by Erin Bullock, an independent scholar, started under the premise that “there is no previous scholarship on silence in games”, so she will use a non-scholarly approach. She said that Zelda uses silence to emphasize stressful events, then showed clips of silence in the Zelda titles.

The next session I went to focused on The American West. I admit this is an area I have little interest in, but I wanted to go to show support for a colleague from UTA. Larry A Van Meter, fromLangstonUniversity, presented a paper on homophobia and homoeroticism in John Wayne films where he argued that before John Wayne started acting as John Wayne, his characters were bisexual. It was a solid argument with good evidence. Paul Varner, fromAbileneChristianUniversity, presented a paper on Max Brand and how he invented his own version of the west. Then something interesting happened: Dara Downey from Trinity College Dublin inIrelandmade an argument that the big cities of the east are like constricting and that the west represents freedom, while Matthew Womble from UT Arlington made the argument that small western cities represent constraint and that the big cities of the east represent freedom.

I wanted to stay for a session on beat literature where another colleague was presenting, but I was hungry, so I went to eat. And there were no sessions that seemed interesting afterwards, so I went to the hotel room. Friday was a day full of wonderful talks.

At 9:30 a.m.I wanted to go to a round table panel that would discuss the future state of anime and manga in scholarship, but for whatever reason the panel didn’t take place, so I went to a game studies alternate panel – one that focused on reading and playing games instead of culture and practice. In this session Matthew Wysocki, from Flagler College, made another re-statement of Bioshock and freedom of choice, but instead of focusing on the little girls choice, which 80% of Bioshock papers, blog posts, online discussions, and presentations focus on, he focused on what the other 20% decide to look at: the “would you kindly” end scene where the player looses agency. He argued that Bioshock shows how we do what we are told to even when we don’t want to. I found it interesting that he said that his focus area of study was “videogame narrative and specially the effect of cut-scenes in the narrative experience”, but when I asked him about the effect of cut scenes in the narrative of games like Final Fantasy XIII, which are extremely linear 3rd person menu driven games he answered with a very eloquent “yeah those games are boring I think that’s a better question for someone who focuses on interface”.  David Owen, from York University, made an interesting talk about choice and freedom in gaming and talked about how even when we have the illusion of full choice in a fully open world we are still constrained by the world and the rules that govern it. Niclas Heckner, from theUniversity ofMichigan, presented a paper linking choice, freedom, and character agency to game narrative. Although it shed a new perspective on gaming that not many game scholars seem to consider (based on the recent articles focusing either on interactivity or narrative but never on both), I must admit that, as a gamer, I found most of what he said (i.e. there is a link between play and narrative) quite obvious. The highlight of this session, I think, goes to Elisa Melendez fromFloridaInternationalUniversity. Perhaps I’m being biased because she was the only other Puerto Rican that I saw in the entire conference (although I read that Rosita, a colleague from UPR Mayaguez and member of PRTESOL also presented), but I do think that her (Elisa’s) topic was timely and relevant and that her presentation was delivered well. She presented some research she did in the Rock Band network about songs uploaded and song difficulty, as well as the attitudes of Rock Band players towards female gamers, to make the argument that the Rock Band community seems to have a certain degree of gender bias. Unlike most of the other presentations that I saw, where the speaker read a paper, Elisa had a PPT that guided her discourse. She talked in a natural, conversational tone, and brought a Guitar Hero controller to show sexism in performance play.  I should also say that I found it endlessly amusing that she had someone from the audience record her giving the presentation so that she could show it to her mother, because “you know, that’s how Puerto Rican mothers are”. As someone who had to record his first three presentations for his mom, I know that feeling all too well.

For the11:30session I wanted to go to an Anime and Manga panel dealing with “the hero”. One paper was to talk about active craft vs busy commerce, another about Tezuka, and a third, the one I wanted to hear the most, was going to explore Vash the Stampede as a hero. Kevin Clay, fromTarrantCountyCollege, was not able to make it, so the Vash paper was not presented. Technical problems caused the session to start roughly 35 minutes after, and because they could not load both the PPT and the paper, both presenters ended up stumbling through the topic. That does not mean that the topics were bad, on the contrary. The issues raised dealing with work v.s. labor and perception of work and of Tezuka’s heroes versus western comic book heroes and their training were enlightening and showed me new ways of looking at Manga and Anime that I had not considered previously. However, the delivery was a bit lacking. Still, I’ll give props to both Keith Brown, from UNT’s Center for the Study of the Interdisciplinary and to Angela Drummond-Mathews fromTarrantCountyCollegefor their conversational and enlightening talks.

I went to lunch for the1:30session, and went to the “future of romance studies” round table panel at3:00.  Because they are opening up the field from romance fiction to romance studies in popular culture (including film, games, and advertisement), I must say that the future of romance studies looks interesting.  Not only is the field opening up to unlock its full potential, but this also allows scholars interested in the topic of romance as it sis presented in different forms of media the chance to engage with the topic and at the same time become exposed to traditional romance fiction.  This session was epilogued by a talk by Meredith Faust fromDePaulUniversity– a brilliant young woman who studied under Dr. Eric Sellinger, an authority on romance studies and who was also in attendance. Her talk focused on the primitive and lust in Phylida and the Brotherhood of Philanderer. It was an intellectually stimulating talk.

At4:30I went to walk around the mall – yes, the hotel where the conference took place is located inside a mall. I bought Vernetica and DeathSmiles (40$ total) and had lunch, then returned to the conference in time for the6:30session. I attended a rhetoric and composition session  that was supposed to focus on the uses of old and new media to reach digital native students in the composition and rhetoric classroom. Joe Biz from CUNY, and a member of the CUNY gaming network, gave a talk on using classroom games to teach grammar and vocabulary.  I hoped it would be an interesting talk, but after 5 years of attending and giving presentations on the same topic I must admit that nothing was new – if anything the talk was, I thought, incomplete. In short, good concept, possibly good application, but bad presentation for the conference. LianaAndersonfromSouthTexasCollegegave a talk on how to use Michael Moor’s works to help students understand rhetorical devices. It was an interesting talk, but as someone who studies new media rhetoric I found the talk to be less than enlightening – although I’m sure many of those in attendance got a lot out of it.  Robin Andreas presented the most interesting talk in this panel. He argued for the use of post 60s war narratives to teach rhetoric. LianaAndersonfromSouthTexasCollegepresented on using youtube to teach rhetoric. I’ve no doubt that the entire session was enlightening for professors who don’t know about using media to teach, but, as I said, as someone who focuses on these approach I found all the talks to be simply fine talks.

For the last session of the day I went to a game studies panel that turned out to be the best one of the entire conference. Ben Villareal fromNew MexicoHighlandsUniversitygave what I felt was the best talk of the entire conference. He discussed notions of deicide and the religious critique in videogames. His delivery was top notch, his analysis accurate, and the topic timely and relevant. My only disappointment with his talk is that he focused on Demon Souls instead of Xenogears, but perhaps that’s just me wanting to project my desire for future research on someone else. Regardless, it was an excellent talk. The second and third best talks in the entire conference (in no particular order of preference) were given by Sean Kennedy ofTexasA&MUniversityand James Coon ofWingateUniversity. Kennedy’s talk titled “The Price You Pay may be Heavy Indeed: Shadow of the Colossus and Player Interaction / Implication” made the argument that players can identify with a third person character and become so immersed in the character, despite it being in a linear quest, that the character’s feelings and emotions are projected unto the player. This goes counter to all, and I mean ALL, the arguments made in the GDC and against most of the arguments made by game scholars – who favor first person open world as immersion and disregard third person linear narratives as “boring”. I happen to agree with Kennedy and have made the same argument myself, but never in a scholarly forum, as my focus has been thus far narrative rather than engagement. I think I shall do some derivative work and extend Kennedy’s paradigm into Heavy Rain and see what comes of it. In a presentation as equally impressive as Kennedy’s, James Coon presented on the religious / fundamentalist elements of the game to make the argument that it was a criticism of religious institutions. It’s interesting because when I played it my reading was of it as a representative of societal fears, but his reading of it was also enlightening.

By Saturday I was beat and wanted to go home, but my mentor had a panel, so I went to the conference. The panel at11:30featured four panelists talking about play and consumerism. Steven Anderson of UC Riverside gave a presentation on the history of consumerism and advertisement in theUS, Sullen Adams of theUniversityofRhodegave a talk on “useless” iPhone apps, like the “Toast” and “Cupcake” apps, and Katriina Heljakka fromAaltoUniversityinFinlandgave a wonderful talk on dolls and doll play in popular culture.

The last session of the conference was my mentor’s session on Film Noir and space. Jennifer Chamberlain from UT Arlington gave a solid paper on memory and amnesia in three Noir-themed films and Kendall Stephenson also from UT Arlington gave just as solid of a talk on space in Vertigo, LaJetee, and 12 Monkeys.

 The experience was worth it. It was a great experience where I got to network and meet new people. I can’t say that I learned a lot, but I did get some interesting ideas about how to analyze culture. I’m looking forward to next year.

 Next Up: Best Talks


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on April 25, 2011, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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