UI grad student focuses on gaming


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When writing about fiction or technology in the 21st century, scholars are inspired by an array of media. For Nicholas Kelly, the inspiration comes from video games.

When the University of Iowa graduate student isn't teaching rhetoric classes, he is working on his Ph.D. research, which focuses on the intersections of technology and culture.

"I think the video-game thing really came out of a matter of when you see something that seems like a useful avenue to think about the stories we tell ourselves as a culture," Kelly said. "Certainly, technology shapes our culture and vice versa, so finding a way in which those intersected is what really led me to it."

In the spring of 2010, the former Daily Iowan columnist wrote a paper combining the video game Left 4 Dead II and the movie Zombieland. The paper focused on the similarity that zombies were running around an amusement park in both genres.

"There is this notion that zombie killing is fun, so a video game was a good thing to look at because it wouldn't exist if it wasn't," Kelly said. "It seemed like a good way to ask questions about zombies and entertainment."

The zombie paper is currently under review, but Kelly's professor, Loren Glass read one of the versions.

Glass said Kelly made an impressive argument and that he represented the commodification of nonmaterial experiences under late capitalism.

"I thought he had a potentially important account of the rise of Zombie-themed narratives in the past decade or so and that he should develop it in that direction," Glass said. "The paper showed that [Kelly] has the potential to be an incisive cultural critic; he has the right combination of theoretical chops and pop-cultural savvy."

The second scholarly paper Kelly wrote about video games focused on Fallout.

Kelly said the notion that people project themselves into digital devices they use is exemplified in this video game. He examined the dangers that can arise when there is a separation of consciousness and body while gaming.

"For a number of reasons this game and its aesthetics, setting, and world building, is a reminder that technology can go a bunch of different ways," Kelly said. "It serves as a reminder that no techno-future is set in stone, but at the same time, it is a digital technology where you project yourself into this avatar."

While the use of video games acted as an axis point for several of Kelly's papers, he has also written works on the concept of singularity and even Wikipedia.

UI Professor Dee Morris said Kelly came into her graduate seminar course with a clear sense of the semester project he wanted to pursue.

"His intent was not to study the accuracy of the Wikipedia as if it were a stable document but rather to examine its potentiality as a document developing across time," Morris said. "The essay was well-framed, well-researched and documented, and convincing throughout."

Though video games were a source of inspiration for some of his papers, Kelly credited his professors with supporting his academic endeavors.

"They are the ones who have given me both the opportunity to be curious about these interactions of technology and culture that I am interested in and the tools to use that curiosity as effectively as I can," Kelly said.

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