An overview: I started work on my PhD. at Columbia in September. I'm in their EGGPLANT Group, which is essentially the video game lab (though the work we do goes somewhat beyond just video games, which is why I'm there). EGGPLANT stands for "Experimental Gaming Group: Play, Learning, Avatars, Narrative and Technology." So you can see it's a mouthful, beside being redundant when you say EGGPLANT Group, but it's a good name. We're going to have a lot of purple in our lab.
And we have a lab! Which is very exciting! Basically, a bunch of people in a number of departments got together and decided that they needed a lab that studied games, so they found some money in the budget to buy us a whole bunch of consoles, some games, an Alienware computer and a couch, which is really all you need for video game heaven. Then they realized they needed students, so they recruited three of us (me, Gus and Zhou) with a pretty nice tuition-plus-stipend dealie. (And unlike most graduate students, I neither have to teach nor do research beyond my thesis work in order to keep my grant. As long as I'm a full-time student and pass my quals, I'm all set for three years.) We're in Communications, Computing, Technology and Education, aka CCTE, though that's not actually the department I'm going to be getting my degree from. It's a long and highly bureaucratic story that isn't interesting for anyone but me, I promise.
Anyhow. Right now, the lab is still kind of in chaos, but we're slowly getting it set up. rscott is going to do a neato mural around the walls for us, and the students are all going to chip in for a mini-fridge, and we've got a big shipment of games winging its way to us as I speak. So that's all good.
On the non-physical level, there's still a fair amount of confusion, though. Two of us (me and Zhou) are first-year students and we're still trying to get our feet under us. We added a fourth student to the lab mid-semester (Bill, who is awesome - not that Gus and Zhou aren't), we don't yet exactly know what our research mandate is, and we have no idea what our relationship is going to be to industry and the rest of the university. We've already gotten about a zillion very interesting opportunities, most of which I can't yet talk about in public, about advising people and/or doing research and/or being academic collaborators for various companies. But we have no good way of selecting what opportunities we're going to pursue, or any organized way of pursuing them - at least not yet. We're slowly figuring out how we're going to work together, but it's taking time and a lot of hard work, and it doesn't help that three of the four of us are doing coursework full-time right now. Oy.
The real root of the difficulty - which, I think, will also be our greatest strength once we get this sorted out - is that the four of us all have very different academic interests, and different research methods we're using to pursue them. Zhou is interested in the cognitive aspects of games; he's probably going to end up doing traditional quantitative research to look at things like the cognitive strategies that people use to play games and solve in-game challenges. Gus (short for Augusta) wants to study the "media ecology" of games - how they fit into people's larger lives and especially how they relate to more traditional mass media - and is going to be doing a lot of qualitative, interview-based stuff. Bill wants to actually build games, and is very hands-on, looking at "serious games" and non-traditional uses for game technology.
And me? Well, those of you who know me know that my core interest is interactive narrative and its possibilities, which is a bloody huge and intimidating topic. I definitely know I'm interested in games both as interactive stories in themselves, and as ways of provoking ordinary people to become interactive storytellers, and now that I've been in school for a couple of months, I'm actually developing questions that I think are address-able, which is good. I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to get anywhere with what I want to study, because it's way too big for me to take a bite of, but now I've got bites. For example, I think I need to revisit my original work on why improvisation is the key to interactivity, and make it more theoretically grounded and academically sound. I want to look at how people learn to be story-makers instead of story-receivers. I need to find out what makes an improvised story good, and how we can make tools that support people in making better stories themselves. (As you can imagine, I'm going to be looking at MMOs and, interestingly enough, The Sims.) These aren't all the questions that I've got on my research agenda right now, but at least I'm starting to define questions that I think are answer-able on the scale of time and expertise that I have now, which is a huge relief. And I can see how these questions are going to lead into my larger life's work, which is even better. I'm sure you'll hear me ranting about this stuff quite often, so I'll leave it at that - but I'm sure you can also see already how these interests are not exactly closely related to the interests of the other people in the lab. It's going to be a challenge.
Okay, class started five minutes ago - it's time to go. I'll get to my actual classes when I get some more time.