What is research?


I spent five years of my life actively studying philosophy, acquiring my masters at the University of Turku, Finland. From Autumn semester1998 to Spring semester 2003 I took classes in history of philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science, metaphysics, ethics and logics, to name a few that I can remember. I was very happy to part of the discussive community – a community that would never punish you to think “too much”.

I had difficulties to find my “minor” within the Faculty of Social Sciences, where theoretical philosophy, my major, was based. This eventually led me to a rich combination of different courses, mainly concentrating on technology and society.

I shopped around my campus, attending classes in Computer Sicence, Linguistics, Psychology, Sociology and Learning Technologies. I took classes from different universities in Finland. I actually even finished a minor on History of Science and Technology, which was mainly taught from the university of Oulu – around 700 km away from my student accommodation. I studied various networks, including network for Cognitive Science and Cognitive Technology and Future Studies. I learned things from there and there, but I cannot really say that I would master any of these areas.

I have always been interested in science. My father is a retired scientist and I lived first 20 years of my life next to a research center studying northern lights. I learned to use computers by trying out almost everything I could find on the centers computers, which I was not actually aloud to use. Luckily, people used to go to home after six or something and I was trusted to stay alone at the offices. I still feel quite home in office environments. Science to me was offices with computers and fancy research equipments.

Today, science and research is still part of my everyday life. I have been working as a researcher from 2003, starting at the University of Lapland and now at the University of Tampere for the past six years. My first faculty was filled with educational scientists, calling their research multidisciplinary. I, as a trained philosopher skewed towards epistemology and philosophy of science, was often times somewhat baffled. Retrospectively, partially this was due to my inexperience and partially due to the lack of scope in the classical philosophy of science. Similar thing happened, when I moved back to south and started working with game researchers mainly with a background of computer science and cultural studies. I was not sure what was the research that we were conducting.

Nowadays I call myself a design researcher. My PhD is concentrating on the creative processes of game developers. I have always been interested on games and my spark for creativity studies was ignited by my wonderful colleagues at the University of Lapland. I am so lucky that they did not end up hating me.

I have always felt as an underdog having a background on a subject that virtually relates to nothing. And everything. Philosophy can take you far, but it can also keep you going in circles. Even though I loved (and hated) philosophy to pieces, I started to feel quite early that I have to do something more practice oriented. After more than ten years, I am still on that road.

Quite recently, one of my colleagues said to me that “You are not actually doing research.” within a sentence that was initially meant to be more than a compliment. It was one of those moments where colleagues pat their backs and lament on bureaucracy, lack of resources and inability of others being as marvellous as you are. That was a fun moment and I really needed it. But it made me think on those few words that my co-worker lightly cast over me. This was not the first time I had been addressed like this.

About four years back another colleague of mine also said something similar. She actually said, again within a completely another issue, me being “…more of a project manager type than a researcher type…”. And I got somewhat utterly fixed with this sentence. I was in the beginning of my (game) research, so that was perhaps more than justified. But I just could not identify myself from that sentence.

It kinda makes sense. I hate reading. I hate writing. And what does a researcher (on a humanistic field) do? Reads and writes.

What is research then? My classical philosophy of science education actually does not even recognize reading and writing explicitly being part of research practice. Some even believe that humanistic research is not actually research, but more of a “study”. And this term is what humanists also sometimes use themselves. Also philosophers do not necessarily think of themselves as researchers, even though they would be paid for being a “researcher”. But I am not here to do a semantic analysis of the use of this word.

I am left thinking, why I appear as “non-researcher” or “more of a project manager type”? What have I been doing for the past six years?

I do quite a lot of “extra” so to speak. I go to game developers conferences and meetings, I drink with them, I have fun with them, I play games with them. I probably have somewhere between 200-400 game developers business cards. And I don’t think myself as a crazy social person. Cards just pile after some years. I can say that I have networked. But was that research?

I am also actively participating to different things at our faculty. I participate to stupid bureaucratic meetings, but more so, I enjoy doing spontaneous side projects with my co-workers to build a better community. I also organize extra courses for students without an extra pay. I like to contribute. But it is not research.

I love to do graphics and would love to have more time to take part on game design projects. I am constantly incorporating visual and design tasks to my research projects. I love print and I believe that visual is the future (even print!). I have been organizing game jams for past four years locally and I am contributing also globally. But is that research?

I also like to keep my self as an avid gamer. Sometimes it is difficult. It is hard to keep enthusiastic on something that you do for your living, you change as a gamer. In 2007 I started to write to Gamereactor Finland to broaden my selection of played games and push me to write about them in Finnish. But that is not research.

As you can imagine, all this does take quite a lot of my time. I do a lot of it on my work time. And it is not research. However, I am paid for being a researcher. Do I cheat the university? I don’t think so.

I believe that if I would sit in my office from day to day, reading and writing as much as I could; occasionally interviewing people (perhaps over phone), sending survey links and email enquiries to game developers; posting sticky notes on my wall to keep my thoughts organized, I would cheat myself. I would be a poor researcher.

I have conducted two semi-structured interview studies, one online-survey, two structured design experiments, two experimental interview studies, two structured experiments and three content analysis on online or otherwise already available material (some ongoing). Some experiments, workshops and data collections were never finished and I have given up on them (they were silly, no need to keep them on). I have published around 40 pieces more or less about games and design. It’s been more than six years now, I can also say that I have officially speaking – researched.

Maybe it is too much, some could say. But to sooth you; I do not really dive that deep (yet). What I am lacking in quality, I am gaining with spectrum. And I have seen this the only way for me. For now.

When I entered the field of research, I had quite an idealistic and clean view on how research is done. My education was mostly about analysis and critique. Not too much about contribution and process – even though my master’s thesis was actually about that. I was very hard on my colleagues at the University of Lapland and was constantly critiquing their theories. I was still a pain in the ass when I entered Game Research Lab at the University of Tampere. I have softened a lot within these years. Research is dirty business. And I love it.

I have learned unbelievably a lot about games and about games industry (not nearly as much as the developers themselves, or perhaps not the same things). But I have been also quietly starting to wake the philosopher in me. I have regained my interest in to the basement of research – that is the philosophy of science.

There are many things that research can be. In some cases, reading is very important, in some, experiments take the biggest role. Some have data, some have theories. Most of them have both. Some research is conducted within an extended time period, some are short and ages fast. Some research is interested in causal relationships, some descriptions of the past, current, or future. Some researchers use methodology x, some y and some z. And some do the mixture. But what is common to all of them?

All that I do is research. When I talk to the game developers, I am conducting either a pre-study or building a trusty relationship with future interviewees. When I am talking to my colleagues, I am testing my own thoughts and theories and gaining information of things I would never read myself. When I am spending my time with my students talking about games, I gain understanding of play that is foreign to me. When I review a crappy piece of a Wii game to a game magazine, I learn what compromises, schedules, budgets and social dynamics can do for a game piece. When I am organizing an extra course, I create a social pressure for me to read pieces I find constantly excuses not to read. When I am enthusiastically throwing myself into an extra project at our faculty or elsewhere, I am building an intuition of a design process of different kind. And when I start a thing or two, I don’t usually plan the outcome. I don’t always have fancy questions, I am just curious.

And that’s what a research(er) in my mind, is.

Thanks for reading.


2 Responses to “What is research?”

  1. Petri Lankoski Says:

    “Do I cheat the university? I don’t think so.”
    Can you even do that, when your duties include societal impact? You are plainly doing your work.

    (I find that too often “what is research” is politically loaded question — not philosophical one — without wanting to understand what is research or science, etc.. Them, the question could be reformulated as a claim: my discipline is real science and yours is not.)

  2. aakoo Says:

    I am not sure, but I believe that “societal impact” is kinda toned down as a merit now that we are more “metrics based”. You know, the number of publications, the “rank” of the journal, number of credits students get, numbers of the graduated students per year etc. Or they just have not yet figured a metric for that. Anyway, I hope I can consider myself as a cheater instead of player of a number game… But in order to even cheat, you have to play the game.

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