Humanities Blog

Mikhail Fiadotau: I would like to see more people use digital technology to creatively express themselves

This November, Mikhail Fiadotau defended his doctoral thesis "Exploring contexts and practices in vernacular videogame creation" at Tallinn University's School of Humanities.

Mikhail Fiadotau

In the interview with dr. Mikhail Fiadotau, you can read more about his research topic and how he managed his dissertation writing.


How did you arrive at your research topic?

Making videogames has been a hobby of mine for almost two decades, but it did not cross my mind to study them academically until 2013 when I found myself on a research fellowship in Japan. I had two months to spend on collecting research data, but I didn’t have a project to collect the data for, as I’d just finished my Master’s in linguistics, and it had left me feeling a bit burned out and wanting nothing to do with linguistics for a while.

It was only then that it occurred to me that I could expand my hobby of game-making into research as well. I soon discovered that there was an entire academic field called game studies, and I met with a few researchers working on it in Japan. As I started to learn more about game studies, one thing became increasingly apparent: there was not a lot of discussion there about the kinds of games that my friends and I made. Most game studies research at the time seemed to focus on well-known commercial titles from North America and Japan, from Legend of Zelda to Bioshock; and it largely left out the fact that there are all kinds of communities of hobbyist and amateur game creators all over the world making small, personal games about their lives, current events, or about nothing in particular. Yet, studying these communities of everyday game-makers seemed important to me in terms of understanding the complexity and diversity of gaming in today’s society.

A year later, I came to Estonia and started a PhD that went through multiple iterations and took eight years to complete. But the general theme remained consistent: how and why communities of creators outside of the formal game industry make videogames.

How will your research change the world?

Like most research: in a minor, incremental way. My dissertation contributes to a better understanding of the role of game-making and digital creativity more broadly in today’s culture. It shows how there is more to videogame creation than the commercial game industry, and how game-making practices are connected to broader cultural contexts. We often view digital media and technology as something very globalized and revolving around a handful of major corporations. This can obscure the fact that many people do many different things with these technologies, which are often rooted in older traditions. We tend to think of the digital and the real world as a kind of binary opposition as if “cyberspace” is a whole different thing from everything that had come before it. Looking at the many parallel histories of videogame creation shows that’s not the case, and everyday game creators deal with the same issues as other kinds of creative communities: identity and belonging, experimenting with their tools and materials, self-expression and innovation, preserving their legacy for future generations, and so on.

I would like to see more research that explores vernacular creativity—these practices of everyday expression—whether focused on videogaming or other digital media. I hope that, by highlighting the examples of lesser-known creator communities, my dissertation can contribute to a burgeoning field of research that can help us remember and understand more of these stories.

What were your secret tricks for consistently working on your doctoral thesis in order to successfully reach the end result?

I wish I’d known some secret tricks—maybe the doctorate wouldn’t have taken 8 years to finish then! One thing that really helped was participation in writing retreats for doctoral students. I would say around half of the dissertation was written during those events, as a change in environment and the absence of chores like cooking, coupled with the peer pressure of everyone writing around you, really do help produce written text that you can work with later.

Talking about your dissertation to everyone you know—your supervisor, family, friends, colleagues, strangers, pets—can be very helpful in itself. Often, explaining your research in the simplest terms possible or answering the most naive questions can help you understand your own project better, or realize what you don’t know about it.

Another thing that I feel is really important yet often underestimated is looking after your mental well-being and getting the support you need. There is a fair amount of research into the mental health of doctoral researchers, and that research doesn’t paint a rosy picture. I know other doctoral students who struggled with their mental well-being—things like anxiety, depression, or the worsening of pre-existing neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD—and I know that many of us benefited from seeking professional help.

What was a memorable or funny thing that happened while writing a research paper?

A few years ago, I went to a major game studies conference in the UK and met a doctoral researcher from a French-speaking university for whom it was his first English-language conference. We started talking, and within two minutes I realized we were basically writing the same article but in different languages. Language barriers are still very much present in academia, and we don’t always see important and relevant work published in other languages. In this case, I was lucky enough to discover another person working on the fairly niche topic I was interested in, and I changed the focus of my article a bit after learning from his work. I wonder if there is someone out there writing incredible stuff that is relevant to my work, but in Portuguese, Arabic, or Korean.

Based on your field of research, what is a "smart way of life" for you?

To me, a smart way of life in the digital realm is about being conscious and purposeful when it comes to what we do there, and having the literacy to accomplish our goals.

We consume and produce a lot of digital information on a daily basis. Too much information, sometimes, or the wrong information. Excessive consumption of digital content can be harmful for the environment (due to, e.g., the carbon footprint of energy use) and often to our own well-being, while things like oversharing online can be similarly bad from a mental health and a privacy/security perspective. To me, a smart way of life in the digital realm is about being conscious and purposeful when it comes to what we do there and having the literacy to accomplish our goals. I would like to see more people use digital technology to creatively express themselves, challenge their biases, and advocate for their and their communities needs.

What do you appreciate most about your supervisor or supervisors?

My supervisor, Carlo Cubero, is a visual anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker. My project on game creation is rather different from his own work, yet he was very open-minded about supervising me. When we started discussing my idea, it became obvious that there are many connections between our research interests. All of our conversations have been very enriching to me because Carlo always manages to come up with a new angle or an unexpected insight rooted in anthropological research. Thanks to this, I realized how much my project ties into existing work on creativity, technology, and community-making—including  aspects that wouldn’t have occurred to me because of focusing so closely on video ggames. So I really appreciate Carlo’s open-mindedness and ability to find connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

Photo author: Arno Mikkor