Stefania Matei is a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bucharest. She is interested in providing post phenomenological insights into the interweaving of technology, temporality, and social organization in situations of collective remembrance and knowledge-making. In this interview, we look back at Matei’s time as a visiting researcher at DesignLab and how this experience has shaped her practice.
How have you experienced DesignLab?
Well, I have had a great experience here at the University of Twente. I’m very happy that I chose DesignLab to carry out my research. After spending time here, I realize that DesignLab is a dynamic and engaging “community of practice” in which members create new forms of knowledge and learn from each other. DesignLab gives space to conceptualize, develop, and test out new ideas.
I have attended several events on campus: lectures, conferences, symposiums, and social gatherings. All of them have been very interesting, and I appreciate the kind atmosphere, the quality of discussions, and the well-managed organization. The talks I attended made me question my previous assumptions about social reality and challenge my view of technology. However, if I have to choose only one event that helped me most, I would say that the lectures given by Armağan Karahanoğlu and her colleagues at the ET department have been the most insightful. They approached the concept of “intervention design” and made me think about video games based on history as powerful ways of intervening in the world. I highly recommend these classes to anyone interested in understanding how technology can become a companion in our attempt to change bad habits and poor lifestyle choices.
Concerning ethics, while reading your previous publication about Digital Cultures of Commemoration, I was wondering whether there is an ethical protocol that must be put in place when creating video games that represent historical events?
As far as I know, there are no formal and rigid ethical guidelines for producing video games based on history. My time here at DesignLab made me think a bit more about the concept of accuracy in relation to history. Would it even be possible to encompass an accurate representation of history? I find it impossible to represent history as it happened through video games. We have been culturally taught to understand history in terms of accuracy, and we have extrapolated this concern in the assessment of various historical productions. Maybe the issue to consider is what kind of message we are sending by depicting a representation of history and how we come to intervene in the world through video games.
So, the most important thing is to approach video games as carriers of knowledge or as producers of knowledge about ourselves. In my work, I approach video games based on history as techniques of the self. In particular, I understand video games as enablers of practices through which we come to see ourselves and gain knowledge about ourselves. Through video games, we can work on ourselves and act on ourselves. Through video games, we can also decide what kind of remembering subjects we want to be, and that is an ethical issue to consider, one which I personally think should gain priority over other preoccupations.
So, the past isn’t necessarily “true” or factual?
It’s a sociotechnical construction.
What is currently informing your research at DesignLab?
I came here on a postdoctoral project. I’ve noticed that many researchers here are developing their own products. I am not developing any particular product, but I wish my work would inform the design of video games in the long run.
My postdoctoral project explores how the past is made present today. How does the past matter in a future-oriented society? Where does the past belong in a future-oriented society? What kinds of innovations are brought up to shape the knowledge we have about historical worlds? So, my project expands on the mainstream sociological perception that digital technologies change the way we live.
And, of course, by changing the world we remember, they change the world that is disclosed to us.
The research I’ve done during my time here is part of a bigger project focused on how digital technologies are changing our commitment to the past. Video games translate the past from an object of archival exploration and search into an object of enjoyment and play. What happens when the past is no longer something to be discovered and recalled but something to be created and experienced in the present? What happens when we come to play history instead of simply evoking it? These questions interest me, and I am trying to answer them in my research.'
How would you position your practice in relation to DesignLab’s Responsible Futuring approach?
Well, there seems to be a relation. Taking responsibility for the future would not be possible without taking responsibility for the past. The boundaries are not so clear about where the past ends and the present begins by letting the future become manifest. Many current innovations have been possible because technologies have opened up paths of engagement with the past. For example, behavioural futures markets would not have even been possible without technologies that created records of past behaviour. What I mean is that the past is always present in our way of thinking about the future.
Another element of commonality is ethics. We come to understand ourselves through the technologies we use, which are inevitably designed to make us particular kinds of subjects. We design versions of ourselves when we design both technologies of collective remembering (such as video games) and technologies of the future (such as various types of robots). Metaphorically, technology is a mirror through which we come to see ourselves by projecting our understanding of the past into the constitution of the future. When we design historical video games, we produce a past version of ourselves and inevitably decide what we would like to become in the future. This mirroring effect provides this kind of knowledge of ourselves, which later impacts how we design the future.
The implication of self-identification in the active moment of gaming, projection, mirroring, and envisioning oneself in the past makes me arrive at the question of diversity in the video game industry. According to your experience or research, what is the state of representation in terms of race, gender, forms of knowledge production, among others?
On the one hand, video games are more prone to depicting wars as events to be remembered and known from history. The conflictual nature of wars resembles the well-established mechanics of the shooter genre. So, video games are more prone to depicting history as conflicts between nations, while obstructing from social views or cultural events and groups that also made up history.
On the other hand, I sense a kind of multivoiceness in historical video games, which is missing from our history books and textbooks, wherein history is narrated from a hegemonic and politically conditioned perspective. For example, in Valiant Hearts, a single event is presented from multiple perspectives: from the perspective of soldiers from both sides, from the perspective of civilians, from the perspective of nurses, and even from the perspective of a dog. So, the medium has a big potential to raise questions and make us escape the hegemonic discourse in relation to past events. All this is achieved by fostering historical empathy and participatory experiences in our understanding of history.
Learn more about Stefania Matei's work on Memoryscapes.