blogging, academics, and the case of The Witcher

As most anyone can tell you, academic blogging died off a long time ago. I’m not exactly sure when it supposed to be popular. I’m guessing it was at a time before most academics had much of an online existence, before they all hopped on Facebook and started sharing articles with one another. As I look at it, blogging has been largely replaced with various web news/article sites ranging everywhere from the familiar NY Times to Medium, there’s no end to opportunities for analysis, critique, and opinion. Only a slice of this content is related to academic issues or to issues treated in an academic manner.  I’ve written a fair amount here about the academic clickbait related to tenure, teaching, the crisis in the humanities, and so on, so I’m not going back over that territory.

Instead, I want to go in a different direction. Given my own (and my friends, apparently) interests in science fiction, video games, comic books, digital media, and such, I find a fair number of articles from these kinds of sites shared in my timeline. Here’s one I came across incidentally. This one is from Kotaku, which is a blog about video games. What makes it a “blog” aside from the fact that it calls itself a blog and looks like it uses some blogging platform? I don’t know. Who knows what these terms mean anymore?

Anyway, the article under question is “The Complicated Women of The Witcher 3,” which, if you don’t know, is a popular video game right now. The article is a thoughtful, one might even say academic, treatment of the representation of women in the video game. I agree with the author, Nathan Grayson, that the subject is complicated and that many of the female characters are themselves complex in that they have enough depth to be available for the kind of analysis typically reserved for characters in novels or films. None of that is to say that the representation isn’t without critique. Many women are scantily clad (sometimes almost comically so) and there’s an infamous scene involving a large stuffed unicorn (ahem). There’s also a fair amount of sexual violence, on the order of what has generated a broader conversation in relation to HBO’s Game of Thrones series.

It’s difficult to call these conversations “academic.” It’s difficult to call anything in social media or blogs academic. Not because it isn’t thoughtful or well-researched, but simply because academic still is tied closely to specific genres and blogging/social media aren’t quite one of them.  However, I have many academic colleagues who read such material, treat it seriously, and share it. So, while it is not necessarily academics who are writing these articles, there is an academic conversation on social media around such topics.

I’m not interested in wading into the debate over these specific issues. Instead, what I do find noteworthy is the rhetorical shift that intellectual conversation makes toward judgment. That is to say, the move to say a certain practice or object is “good” or “bad.” That, for example, The Witcher 3 is good or bad for this or that reason for the way it represents women, or perhaps in a slightly more complicated fashion, these parts are good and those parts are bad. Or, as in the example of Game of Thrones, a certain rape scene should or shouldn’t have happened, or if it was going to happen should have been depicted differently.

In some respects these conversations are a familiar part of mainstream conversation about popular culture, where we often say, “I thought the movie was good but it should have had a different ending.” It’s been a long, long time since I taught literature, but I can still recall the desire of students to talk about how they believed characters should have behaved differently or some other plot twist should have happened. We don’t tend to make these kinds of aesthetic judgments about “literature” however. I suppose we find such judgments appropriate for pop culture though because we believe the forces behind pop cultural production to be of a different order than that of art. That is, whether it’s The Avengers, The Witcher 3, or Game of Thrones, we’re talking about commercial products. So we can just say, for example, that in The Witcher 3 the female characters didn’t all need to have so much cleavage. I’m just noting that we never used to talk about literature in the same fashion. Again, maybe this is why such writing isn’t “academic,” though again it is conversation with which many academics have serious investment and participation.

So again, let me reiterate, that I am not saying here that the judgments made in such discourses are wrong or inappropriate. There’s no reason why we can’t talk about what art or media should be like. I would note that these conversations are a marketplace onto themselves and passing judgment on media is going to draw more eyeballs than something more… what is the word… “academic”(?). I wonder though if this is where cultural studies leads, to an activist criticism that seeks to shape media to reflect a certain set of values.

Maybe so. I’m not going to make a judgment about whether or not such a project is admirable.

However it does strike me that it suggests a space for other forms of humanities online writing, perhaps even blogging, that there are other rhetorical gestures to make toward popular culture than judgment. For instance, this article starts to make some interesting comparisons with the way gender and sexuality are handled in certain Bioware games (e.g. Mass EffectDragon Age: Inquisition), though I might also point toward Skyrim. There’s clearly a difference between games that allow one to customize a character’s appearance (including gender and race) and one like The Witcher, which does not. Now, it must be said that academic analysis of video games obviously goes on in more traditional academic genres and perhaps even on (supposedly dead) academic blogs.

I just wonder if there is a way to bridge the gap between the difficult discourse of academic genres and that of more popular websites. I assume that it is, that if such translations are possible for rhetorical gestures other than judgment.



  • Paul Muhlhauser

    I’m not sure about gestures, but if these gestures are to be accessible I kinda think academic authors might think about articulating work in multiple genres or in multiple ways. So instead of designing one version of a text maybe academics could articulate multiple versions (all accessible in an interface where you “choose” your version) of a text. Such articulations might be considered ethical by being accommodating to different discourses and reading preferences. Just an idea I’m workin’ on. Thanks for the post and opportunity to comment!