As couples celebrate one of the most romantic nights of the year, one Sunderland PhD student is swapping roses for an Xbox as she explores how love and relationships can blossom through video games.
Steph Farnsworth will be joined by speakers from around the world for the Multiplay: Sex and Romance Conference, which is being held online on Tuesday, February 15th – the day after Valentine’s Day.
It will feature discussions on how our cyberlives impact our relationships, how sex and romance is explored through video games and technology (like virtual reality headsets) and whether advancements in technology will fundamentally change our experiences.
Steph, 31, who is studying a gaming PhD at the University of Sunderland, said: “We are very much in a digital age, and relationships happen just as much online as offline.
“Look at how dependent we were, and still are, on technology for maintaining relationships throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and especially through lockdown. And if it’s happening, if it’s everywhere – then it really should be explored.
“That’s the job of researchers – to look at contemporary culture and see what’s going on and why. We can learn a lot through online relationships and even through gaming.”
There is a serious side to the conference too.
Sexual exploitation and harassment are also key themes, as well as advice on how people can protect themselves and stay safe while gaming. These are issues Steph feels aren’t highlighted enough.
She said: “Gaming is still treated as an afterthought when we talk about media and if it does come up in conversation, it’s usually really unfair assumptions about gaming addiction or more broad and sweeping statements about games being violent. But we know sexual exploitation and harassment happens around gaming.
“The Gamergate movement, which started in 2014, saw gamers target women in gaming with relentless harassment, including rape threats, on a global scale. Women who stream are often targeted with sexualised comments that some platforms are still incredibly slow to deal with.
“The games industry isn’t unionised and has very little support, so even workers aren’t protected from exploitation. Generally, I don’t think we talk enough about those issues.”
Steph is co-founder of Multiplay, a platform for education researchers, sociologists and media and gaming scholars to collaborate and share their ideas and expertise – with the ultimate aim of establishing gaming as an area of study in the north-east and beyond.
Since its launch in July last year, the network has gone from strength to strength. Its first online conference last month attracted speakers from Mexico, Canada and Ghana and saw nearly 200 people tune in on the day.
“The turnout on the day was huge and we haven’t had one negative review,” Steph said.
“There was a real buzz about the day, and a feeling that the audience were really behind us and keen to hear from new and emerging researchers.
“It felt fresh, and it told me that I am on the right track: the University of Sunderland can be a special hub for games, and this is perhaps being reflected by the new games centre that is being developed in the city.”
A further 30 new members have joined Multiplay – taking the total up to around 80.
Steph added: “It’s a hugely exciting time, and the network is only just getting started.
“I’m working with colleagues at the University to publish a book from our first conference, we have more conferences lined up, and our membership is growing every single day.”
Lee Hall, Head of the School of Media and Communications at the University of Sunderland, said: “The important topic of relationships in games is a significant area of interest, especially given how the medium cuts across cultures.
“Video game depictions of love, romance and sex have been variously disturbing, heart-warming and boundary-breaking.
“The latest conference hosted by the University will no doubt provide a rich space for discussion and builds on the success of January’s event. It is so pleasing to see how this area of academic study brings together students at all levels as well as UK and international scholars.”
The Multiplay: Sex and Romance Conference is supported by the University’s Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies and the Participations Interdisciplinary Research Network.
Register for the free event here.
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