2021 – A Very Noita Year

Many in my network publish highlights of the past year typically in January, or even in December. For me, the annual reflections have been a great way to start the year and celebrate the recent achievements instead of jumping right into the extensive list of dreams, hopes and concrete to-dos. It is important to stop and reflect, appreciate your past and lay the mental groundwork for new things ahead. 

This year, I had a harder-than-usual descent to work life after the holidays. It has been quite an exhaustive year as a new parent balancing work and life in the pandemic era. Even the holidays themselves were filled with new kinds of stress factors. My first work week of the year 2022 went past too fast and while all the deadlines kicked in, it took me nearly two months to get my reflections into a publishable format. But 2021 was a special year, and I am not a person that gives up easily, so here my highlights!

I know it is a bit dirty to quantify one’s academic achievements, but it is definitely part of the world that we game scholars inhabit. While game developers crunch the numbers of the download rates, peak online players, user acquisition costs, or for instance click-through rates — we follow the slow development of the impact of our research papers.

Annual citation count progress
on my Google Scholar profile.

In 2021 I improved my academic metrics from 180+ citations (2020) to 230+ citations (2021). I follow my numbers from Google Scholar, so they keep on piling up while the Google “robots” find more papers from each year. While I have had one or two valleys on my statistics, it is definitely nice to see an upward trend for a few years in a row.

For me, improving metrics has been a sort of a maturity test: after 15+ years in academia, am I able to make sure that my research is noticed and my contribution is used? Do I understand the networks of academic communities, and how to, not only report your findings, but to also make sure that my work is spread around? While there are numerous tactics and lessons that I have learned throughout the years, and more so in the past year or so, one of the biggest factors for the citation count is the sheer number of (new) publications.

For a long time now, I have been aiming to publish 2 to 4 academic papers per year, and I was really stressed out whether it would be possible after transitioning to parent life. I ended up publishing 9 articles, out of which 7 were peer-reviewed research articles, one a book review and one a preface for a book (check out Game Designer Confessions by Konsta Klemetti & Harro Grönberg from Amazon).

Many of my contributions are published within a small scale special interest academic conference ICGJ. While the ICGJ conference has a relatively low impact factor due to its age and breadth of its niche, it has been my go to venue for game jam research. At this stage of game jam studies, I find it important to share the research results with the right community — Instead of trying to aim venues rated higher. It also helps that ICGJ utilizes ACM Digital Library, allowing people outside the ICGJ community to find our work with ease. I got really lucky in 2021 and got several papers accepted. I was also happy to receive two best paper awards. 

I have to admit that publishing 7 research papers in a single year feels like a small miracle as a new mom. I am grateful for the support of the community surrounding me, and I will try to remember to pay this back to other new moms in our communities. And while I am happy to also support new dads, I am especially emphatic to the ones that have had their bodies stretched and scarred in the process. Academia, especially tech academia, is still pretty harsh for women and it is not the most friendly environment to be pregnant, breastfeed, teach small kids to sleep, and to take care of your own recovery. Support is really important.

I have titled 2021 “A Very Noita Year”. I am sure that I will be excited about the work I did in collaboration with The Finnish Museum of Games and indie game company Nolla Games, even years after 2021. Noita – The Long Journey of a Game Idea exhibition, was showcased at the Finnish Museum of Games from 4th September to 12th December. The curatorial research team included me, museum researcher Niklas Nylund and my former student Riina Ojanen. The project was a first of its kind for me as a combination of praxiological research and exhibition curating. The process involved over 100 hours of gameplay of Noita, mostly streamed live on Twitch. I also regularly started my days with watching other content creators streaming their Noita runs. It has been a long dream of mine to utilize streaming in my research projects.

Streaming Noita on Twitch.
Stream statistics from 11th May 2021.
My son doing his own research on Noita streams.

In the end, the project consisted of a great selection of varied information sources: multiple interviews with the development team, engagement of the player and content creator community of Noita, physical materials such as development notes and lists, sketch book, one development diary, multiple mockup images, videos, trailers, 23 early prototypes, 180+ builds of the game, as well as other materials provided by the development team and what we found online.

In the spirit of The Finnish Museum of Games, the exhibition also featured two playable prototypes/games from the development journey: one really early prototype (Wizard Physics) and the Steam Early Access version of Noita. We have a couple of research papers lined up and hopefully will be able to publish the academic side of the results somewhere between 2022 and 2024. The project had really interesting research findings from the praxiological perspective.

Arvi Teikari’s sketch book was filled with gems.
Exhibition setting of Noita – The Long Journey of a Game Idea. Photo: Saana Säilynoja / Vapriikin kuva-arkisto.

I also took on an extensive illustration work for the Noita exhibition. We ended up dividing the development journey of Noita into seven timelines. All these timelines were visually presented in the exhibition space as  80 x 200 cm posters surrounded with carefully picked objects, notes and drafts. Each timeline was themed according to a level in the actual game. I created stylized graphics iconizing characters and objects originally created as pixel art by the Noita’s lead artist Arvi Teikari. While I was happy with the overall look of the visuals, I found the development of the pixel-to-vector translation the most fascinating. I find the exhibition illustrations to be my most advanced and ambitious graphical work since 2003, when I started my own company.

Original Noita game with pixel art on the left, my vector interpretations on the right.
Developing a style guide for the exhibition illustrations.

Sometimes I feel that I have become a bit of an overused face or voice on Finnish media. While it can be flattering to be invited to share your insights, it often steals time from other work. Not all media work is visible: I sometimes help journalists to find suitable experts or educate them over the phone with impromptu lectures on games. I take this as our service for the society and am happy to help, as educating the masses on the plurality and complexity of game phenomena will also help our scholarly work in the long run. This year the Finnish game industry hit one hallmark with our national media: we got a full hour of live prime time on the national broadcasting company YLE’s TV2 talk show Kulttuuricocktail, labeled as culture programming. I was humbled to represent our professional communities together with the legendary Sami Järvi (Sam Lake) from Remedy. The title of the talk show was “Videogames as a super art form”. The show was in Finnish and is available as a recording: https://areena.yle.fi/1-50834543.

Me and Sam Lake at Yle’s greenroom waiting for the showtime.
Discussing games as “super art form” on YLE’s Kulttuuricocktail.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of the year was the launch of our Game Design Praxiology Group (with the letter i, not e!!). We have been existing for a while now, sharing our pet-peeves of studying games from the praxiological point of view, but it is time to come out from the stealth mode. Our group currently has 8 members including me. We are versatile: we cover different nationalities from Finns to Swedes, to Brits to South Koreans. Our backgrounds are in philosophy, game studies, history, art education, media studies, and even physics. We study games as art, cultural diversity of game development, translation processes of expertise in game development, game jams, game development tools and pipelines, game art education, development of quantum games, tools for hybrid play, epistemic communities of game developers as well as language(s) of game design just to name a few general topics. Many of the members of our group have experience in the game industry prior (or parallel with) their academic careers. 

Currently there are multiple specific PhD research projects ongoing in our Praxiology group. Solip Park is studying game expats at the Finnish game industry, Ed Morrell is taking an interesting perspective on studying game making through asset creation and design fiction, Laura Piispanen is looking at quantum game design and development of science games, and Heikka Valja is looking at game development from the art education point of view. I am super happy to be able to supervise these projects!

Our senior members, Ville Kankainen and Ylva Grufstedt, are working on their postdoctoral research ideas and projects. Ville is currently finalizing his doctoral studies on hybrid play at the Tampere University, and his insights to hybrid and analog game design is very valuable for our group. Our Swedish leg of the team, Dr. Ylva Grufstedt, is working on her postdoctoral studies and helping Aalto’s online learning services to understand the challenges of (educational) game development pipeline(s). Our game development lecturer at Aalto University, Miikka Junnila, is developing his research on the dialogue between theme and mechanics in game design. 

It is great to have this group, and we are currently applying for funding from several sources. We run monthly game research seminars mixed with other game groups at Aalto, focusing especially on our shared interest in game design research. We are always looking for interesting academic and industry collaborators.

We invited Casey O’Donnell to speak about his research to one of our monthly seminars.
Our Aalto Game Design Research seminars were the only virtual “coffee breaks” for me in 2021.

Apart from these highlights, life in 2021 was pretty monotonous as the world has been in a constant stream of limitations and lock-downs. Me and my husband worked from home and avoided burdening our small family with Covid-19 or other viruses. Despite that, I got new glasses (to cheer me up) and enjoyed daily walks with my son. I tried to keep my walks interesting by practicing some impromptu phone calls to colleagues around the globe while the toddler was sleeping. I highly recommend this to others! Unfortunately my son’s sleeping pattern changed during the Autumn, so these walks are now in the past.

Combining baby walks and meetings.

At the end of the year 2021, I got myself an Oura ring and new Apple Watch to help make my habits visible to me. While I do feel that I have learned a lot in my life, I am still on my journey to learn how to take better care of myself. 

While I knew that I was sleeping really poorly on some nights, Oura made it really visible encouraging me to concentrate on demanding less from myself on the next day.

The first year of the pandemic was run in survival mode. The second year has felt like squeezing the final juices from the fruits planted in the pre-pandemic time. We desperately need carefree face-to-face interactions, wandering around the campus, coffee breaks, corridor conversations, and conference trips to keep research fresh and our sanity intact. 

2021 was a good year to reflect on, but it was a hard year to go through.

Game Design Praxiology

On 14th May 2018, I successfully defended my doctoral thesis titled Game Design Praxiology at the University of Tampere, Finland. My dissertation is a collection of 19 different studies between 2006 and 2016 covering topics from game ideation and production processes to design values of game developers and cultures of game jams.

Kultima_Praxiology_COVER_webThe book without the articles is available online at: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-0742-4.

The journey to get to this point has been long and I reflected that path and future directions on my lectio at the defense day. Here is my transcription of the opening talk:

Over ten years ago, I stepped into the world of game research. Since 2006, I have been calling myself a game researcher. Such title does not exist formally, but it is more communicative than university researcher, project researcher, or university lecturer – as the Finnish universities wants us to call ourselves. It is almost – as if – we would be without a personal agenda: blank canvases working as hands in a machine that produces objective lessons in the human life that we want to understand better, or even gain better control at. But all of us researchers, we know that being a scholar on a certain field, calls for devotion, persistence and personal engagement. Often times you are the only one, or at least among the very few that sees the seriousness of your topic.

Being a game researcher has been a dream come true career, I was never able to imagine. When I started my university studies in 1999 at the University of Turku studying theoretical philosophy, games were touted as a mere past time, waste of time even among my peers, and most definitely not worth an academic eye. Much has changed since.

Digital games have become part of everyday lives of majority of the people in the first world countries and beyond. Several generations have been brought up by games. We have learned languages through games, acquired skills that are imperative for the ever complex futures, formed friendships with each other, found solace in the midst of the political turbulence or remedies on the emptiness of the modern lives. We have found power in play, fell in love with the craft and each other – some have even found their partners in life through games and brought up their kids with gaming. We have also learned how games can bring bullying, hate or even crimes closer to our homes. Game cultures hold all the colors of the human. And there is much to explore when something goes into so many levels and dwells deep into the human in us. We have started to realize the value and the seriousness of games as a phenomenon.

But games are not only for the players. They are made in professional settings, where people get paid for their work. They are designed step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Hours and hours are used in perfecting the best ones of them. Hundreds of people are involved in the biggest productions. Even the most simple ones take time, skills and experience to reach the devices of the players. If we only look at the final products, we have a very limited view of the overall of the phenomenon of game design.

This dissertation contains five claims: 1) Game design is timely and particular, 2) Game design is value pluralistic, 3) Game design process is opportunistic, 4) Game design process is a plethora of ideas, and 5) Game design practice is natured and nurtured by the surrounding ecosystem. These theses form the foundation of game design praxiology, which I have further translated as a pursuit to study games as created.

My dissertation is positioned on the multidiscipline of game studies. It presents the findings of a ten-year study of game developers and the contexts of their creative practices. As a multidisciplinary enquiry, this study draws from the theoretical and methodological traditions of creativity studies, management studies, computer science, and design research to supplement the discipline of game studies. However, studying game developers is not a typical focus for the field of academic game research. Through this dissertation, I am making a critical comment on the young tradition of game studies for its ontological narrowness and the neglect of the relevance of the creator in the quest for understanding the phenomenon of games and play.

I argue, that we cannot fully understand games before we also understand their creators and have a better view on what goes into making games.

This study has been a long journey. Altogether, the five claims presented in my book, draw from nineteen sub-studies between 2006 and 2016. The whole, that these studies form, is exploratory utilising multiple methods, capturing the voices and realities of the creators in different ways. Some of my sub-studies have been spanning over couple of years, some have been small investigations into specific topics and some have drawn from couple of different data sets that might have been collected further away from each other. They all have their own research questions and conclusions, but they have also impacted each other and contribute to a whole that has been growing within a decade of my career. The overview of the study is ethnographically informed: the data collection covers an extensive period in games from 2006 to 2016, bridging the sub-studies with field work and digital ethnography at multiple industry events around the globe and social media platforms.

I have found value in collecting the stories and reflections of the developers to understand game development as experienced, since the issues that they express and the meaning making processes that they engage into, as well as words that they choose to use, frame their practices. This dissertation takes several levels of game developers’ realities and experiences into consideration, but at the same time leaves a lot for others to study.

Perhaps most importantly, my dissertation addresses the changing environment and a decade long stream of trends in the game industry – painting a picture of a challenging field of the practitioners. Such an environment requires flexibility and adaptation from the creators making game development a constant learning process.

One of the trends that I highlight in my dissertation, is the casual turn in games. When I started my work at the University of Tampere, we were set to study the design space of casual, mobile, multiplayer games. As these three notions dominates the game markets nowadays, back then there were not even a single game that would combine all of these dimensions. Some games in 2006 were directed towards large audiences with their simple and easy to learn designs, some were utilizing the power of networked computers to gather millions of players together and some were played on the mobile devices. But none of them were Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, or perhaps something like Design Home that I play almost daily. Digital games were about to grow up and become as penetrating in our everyday lives as Football, Chess, or Lottery had been for decades or centuries before the digital entertainment. This normalisation of digital play has had a wide impact on the ways computer games are created.

In 2018, the sphere of games and play is overwhelmingly vast. There is more variety for everyone to search – and at the same time it is increasingly difficult to get visibility to a single work. Any theoretical frame that pursuits to address games without narrowing their scope, will be in trouble. My dissertation explores the multitude of game design, and discusses how games can be many and always affected by the values and appreciations of their respective creators – which also come in numbers. One of my favorites in this dissertation is the notion of game design value. I have used this to communicate the pluralistic nature of game design. Throughout my journey, I have been witnessing as well as participating to several discussions where we compare our game experiences. We are all engaging from our own perspective on the judgement of game design decisions that the game developers do before we engage with games as players. Even though for a one game maker, it might be important to create really challenging games or others use games as a platform of self-expression, innovation, or economic gain, game design cannot be reduced to a single value.

It is important to understand that games are made by someone. And the processes of these creators are not straightforward. Anybody can come up with an idea, but it takes experience and persistence to make those ideas come to life. In essence, it takes several tries to get everything right in such an experiential product as games strive to be. In my dissertation, I address this core concept of game development: iteration. Game development consists of cycles of working on the details, where some ideas hit the dead end and others are formed during the process. Iteration is a word used widely by the practitioners, but in my work I tie the concept into a larger notion of opportunism in game design. Opportunistic strategies are visible on multiple levels of game work, and embraced as well as amplified within game creation cultures. Game developers do not only need to react to the changes within the industry, but take and prepare for the opportunities that might come about within the development processes.

A big part of my study is revolving around the notion of game idea. The level of ideas is more accessible to the outsiders of the creation cultures, but often misunderstood. One cannot enter the industry as an idea guy – game developers are not running out of ideas. The creative process of making games is collaborative and social, requiring creative input from several professions. The game innovation processes are not solely based on single overarching game idea, but rather on various idea acts: practitioners create ideas, record them, utilize them in various ways, bounce ideas with others, test and learn new ideas through prototyping, find new ideas and kill loads of them within the production processes – and they also nurture their creative processes through hobbies and research. The role of a game idea is not emptied through brainstorming studies. It needs to be looked through the lens of game design praxiology.

Lastly, my work highlights how the larger ecosystem impacts on the game development practices. For the past decade, the game industry has expanded into a wide ecosystem of diverse actors and professions. We no longer can operate with simplistic frames of role division between a game designer, programmer and an artist – we need to understand the rich fabric of networks of people that make the productions and the whole industry move forward. This varying network of actors, including non-commercial actors, has its own role in nurturing the developments within the field.

Nowadays there are multiple different paths to become a game developer – through school or training, but also through hobbies just like decades ago. In my dissertation, I have highlighted the phenomenon of game jams, as it has been growing exponentially during my study period. And I believe that it will have a greater impact that we can yet understand. Looking closer to this phenomenon particularly, we are able to expose a widely spread global movement of creative communities emphasising diversity, co-creativity, opportunism, and prototyping cultures impacting a whole generation of game developers.

Throughout these ten years, I have been sitting at the audience of several of my colleagues defending their books on games. A classic question or comment from an opponent has been how one could have been dividing the examined study into smaller, more focused investigations making the theses cleaner and easier to handle. I feel like we game scholars have not had such an academic luxury. As you embark on one question, you are destined to face a wall of another one. We are starting to find the paths that are more safe to focus on. There is much more work to do. My dissertations calls for further research within game design praxiology: as long as game making is not a part of the basic education in the same way as writing or drawing, games are in danger of remaining misunderstood as a wide and vibrant form of art and practice.

I ask you, Doctor Whitson, as my opponent appointed by the Faculty of Communication Sciences, to make the comments on my dissertation, which you consider pertinent.

Thank you everybody, who were part of this journey! I appreciate all our past projects and conversations as well as look forward to the future collaborations! From now on, you can call me Dr. Aakoo.

Here are some photos capturing the shared joy of the defense day:

Games and Innovation

I have been busy working on our new project Games and Innovation. It is not that new anymore, since it will be finished by the end of this year. Loads of data has been collected and hopefully there will be huge amounts of publications available for the upcoming years. The official blog for our project is http://www.gamesandinnovation.com

I also officially started my PhD studies here at the University of Tampere this spring, as a doctoral student of department of information studies and interactive media (INFIM). My thesis working title is “Games and Innovation”, just like the title of current research project that I am leading. Some old publications will be possible to use for the thesis, which hopefully makes the journey slightly easier.