Reflection: Research and Writing

So this week (specifically tomorrow) marks two years since I started this blog. And like I did last year, I wanted to take a bit of time to do a retrospective of the last year.

The big thing I wanted to focus on for this essay was research. I wound up doing a couple of multi-part essays built around topics that demanded a lot of extra effort. One was on monetization in games and the role of manipulative tactics in how games get monetized. Another was on violence in video games and attempting to navigate academic papers.

I wanted to focus on these essays because they are the kind of writing I genuinely enjoyed doing and would love to do more of. Research is something both informative and interesting. But it’s also incredibly difficult and time-consuming.

But even though the process is difficult, it is a valuable undertaking. Because research is a process that forces us outside of our perspective and requires us to learn about the world as it is, and not simply as we want it to be. And sometimes, when we confront hard facts rather than what we would like to be true, we are forced to rethink our positions and start over from scratch.

What makes research time-consuming is obvious: there’s a lot of information out there, even if your research isn’t original. So you need to read dozens of articles and books to just be caught up on a subject. And there’s no guarantee that you’re done at that point.

But what makes it really difficult is knowing how to sift through all of that information. Which studies are relevant to the topic you want to talk about? Which ones fit with what you’re trying to do, and which ones point to interesting questions that you might not be able to tackle adequately? How do you go about reading this stuff?

One thing that certainly helps solve these problems is formal training. But formal training is A) expensive, B) time-consuming, and C) doesn’t fully solve the problem, because you can only get formal training in one specific subject.

Instead, the key is going to lie in practice and understanding how to read resources. And knowing where to find those resources.

It’s easy enough to share how you can use Google Scholar to find academic studies of all sorts of topics. You can’t always get access to those articles, but there’s a secret to be shared later. Yet just using a search engine isn’t enough.

So I wanted to share some tips with anyone who might wonder how to do some light research.

The biggest issue that any scholar runs into is “terminology” or “jargon.” Basically, special words used by researchers to talk about a subject. Jargon isn’t unique to academic studies. Nor is jargon necessarily “bad” on its own. But the problem arises that if you want to study a topic, you might think that you’re searching for Term A, but really you need to be searching for Term B.

Which is really the first step. You will usually start with what you think you’re looking for. For example, when I did my articles on violence in video games and their impact on player psychology, I started with “violence in video games psychology.” Because…well…obviously. But those searches started turning up more specific terms: “affect” was one that came up a lot. And so I knew from there that I would need to narrow down my search. Rather than just “psychology,” I would start searching for “affect.” Or I might look for things like “violent behavior.” And so on. Carrying out a bunch of different searches, learning new terms, and then searching again is a way to get used to the jargon. Whether you use it or not in your own writings (there are good reasons to avoid jargon), you want to make sure you have a strong basis of research.

Another good place to look? Bibliographies. A bibliography is a big list added at the end of an academic article that says “here are aaaaall the other things I used to help me write this article.” That is, here are the books and articles and websites that were referenced. Basically, a scholar puts something in the bibliography that is relevant to their research. So if you can locate that bibliography (it might take a bit of searching, but even if the whole article isn’t available to you, you can find the works cited), then you now have a whole list of potential works to look at. Which really narrows down your search. And then if you track down those articles and books, then they can give you even more lists to work with.

So that’s searching. How about reading?

If you’ve ever tried to look up academic articles, then you probably know that a lot of them are locked behind paywalls. If you happen to be a college student or have a good public library, maybe you can get access to those academic journals.

But what if you don’t have access?

Well every website is at least going to give you this thing called an “abstract.” The abstract of an academic paper tells you the very basics of what the article is about. Usually, it will tell you A) what problem is being studied, B) what the scholars thought would happen (i.e. the hypothesis), C) how they carried out their study, and D) what conclusions they reached from the data they found. You won’t get to see the literal data, and the details of the study will be hidden to you. But if you have good reason to think you can trust the journal and the scholar, then you don’t need that information.

The final thing I wanted to note was a warning, of sorts. While everyday people aren’t aware, scholars know that there’s a lot of “bad” information out there. Basically, there are “academic” journals that exist to either publish whatever they get paid to publish, or to be ideological houses for papers that couldn’t get through standard (read “rigorous”) vetting processes. As an example, there are “academic” journals that exist to promote the scientific study of Young Earth Creationism – the religious belief that God created the universe in six literal days, and thus that the Earth is roughly 6000 years old.

Why bring these up? Because sometimes that bad information can get mixed up with otherwise good information when you do your searches. Maybe you’re studying video games and violence, and you find a journal with some fancy title, and you assume it’s legitimate.

So what do you do? A good rule of thumb is to do a check on the journals. Just search for them and see what turns up. Do they have a reputable publisher? Is there a Wikipedia page on them? Do people ever seem to talk about them as scam journals? I can’t say for sure that you can eliminate 100% of bad information, because whenever you try to research in a field that isn’t yours, the traps will always exist and mistakes will probably be made. But at the very least, you can limit the number of mistakes that get made.

I conclude this just by saying that putting a lot of time and effort into a major project like this is incredibly rewarding. As I said earlier, I want to do more of those kinds of essays. And hopefully I can find good topics for them. But I also hope that I can perhaps inspire someone to try the task out for themselves. Whether it’s something that gets written and published as a blog, or just done as a private project for their own amusement or education, knowing how to learn is a valuable skill. There are many problems we encounter in our lives that can be addressed by this process, and putting in that time and effort to learn can genuinely make our lives better by making us more thoughtful.

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