Not Just a Game

T.L. Taylor, PhD'00
Mike Lovett
T.L. Taylor, PhD'00

Sociologist T.L. Taylor, PhD’00, didn’t own an Atari or even a personal computer when she was young. Like most teens of the 1980s, she occasionally visited a video arcade, but that was the extent of her gaming experience.

So how did she become an expert in the study of online gaming?

“I needed moments of daily distraction while writing my dissertation at Brandeis,” says Taylor, an associate professor of comparative media studies at MIT. Once she discovered EverQuest, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, she was hooked. Before long, the game was much more than a distraction. Taylor had discovered a community with a fertile and evolving culture — a microcosm grappling with social tensions echoed in mainstream society.

“The more time I spent in the game, the more I realized this was an incredibly rich area of study,” Taylor says. “Gaming is the canary in the coal mine for critical cultural questions,” including issues related to gender roles, online communities and intellectual property rights.

Online culture has become a popular area of study across many disciplines. In the 1990s, however, scholarly interest in the Internet was met with skepticism at best, outright dismissal at worst.

Taylor counts herself lucky to have been at Brandeis, where professors supported her scholarly interest in virtual worlds and gaming — even if they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“It was an exciting time,” Taylor recalls. “Those of us studying the Internet in the 1990s were researching things that had never been looked at before.”

Before arriving at MIT two years ago, she published “Raising the Stakes,” a book about the competitive professional gaming world known as e-sports, replete with contracted players, tournaments and fans.

Her current research project picks up where that book left off, exploring the rise of live streaming, where players broadcast their play over the Internet to others in real time, combining the often solo game experience with the communal experience of social media.

“Today, many people want to, and often can, make a living from gaming through tournament winnings and advertising with live streaming,” Taylor says. “It raises really interesting questions about who owns these cultural objects around which we are building meaning, communities and livelihoods.”

The gaming industry has evolved so much and so fast over the past decade, it’s almost impossible to predict how it will grow in the next decade.

“I’m just happy people are taking gaming seriously,” says Taylor. “It’s an important part of our everyday social worlds now.”

— Leah Burrows