MARY ANN BUCKLES heard from a friend in her amateur choir that her 20-year-old dissertation on a video game was now considered a classic. ”I thought, classic dissertation?” Ms. Buckles recalled. ”They hated my dissertation.”
The friend was referring to an article in Circuits on Feb. 26 that mentioned Ms. Buckles, who is widely credited with having written the first academic study of the aesthetics of a video game. In 1985, Ms. Buckles — or Dr. Buckles, to use a title she does not use — earned her doctorate in German literature for a dissertation titled ”Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure.”’
”It is a good solid dissertation that has contributed to the field, and that could have become an important early book,” says Espen Aarseth, a leading video-game researcher at the IT University in Copenhagen, who said he cited it eight times in his own book on the subject, ”Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
As a graduate student in 1980, Ms. Buckles became captivated by computers, and spent three to four hours a day using e-mail, a form of communication little known at the time outside universities and government. Although she didn’t play Adventure, she saw it as an emerging literary form that deserved attention, and she began interviewing people about their experiences. ”When I started, I thought, ‘This is so fascinating,”’ she said. ”I knew I was a pioneer.”
Her advisers at the University of California at San Diego were unconvinced. (While the dissertation topic had no direct German component, it was put forward as literary scholarship.) A mathematician on her dissertation committee was a supporter, she says, but the literary experts balked. Ms. Buckles offered to teach them to play, without success. ”The game itself sounded so simplistic to them, they couldn’t even imagine what fascinating experiences they could have in their mind,” she said.
Ultimately the committee accepted the dissertation, but ”by then,” she said, ”I just wanted out.” She left academia after her graduation in the spring of 1985, publishing one article in Byte magazine in 1987.
In the intervening years, as the video-game field has become fertile ground for academic research, Ms. Buckles, 51, has worked as a technical writer, an administrative assistant and a medical transcriptionist. She works in San Diego as a massage therapist at a spa and at a hotel.
Her husband, Jack, is a computational biologist who keeps a neural net constructed out of 198 computers running in a bedroom to figure out how to fold proteins. But computers figure little in her own life. She no longer uses e-mail.
”When I left this field, I did not turn around,” she said. ”I just left it. I was really hurt by the whole process.”
Established game researchers are familiar with the gantlet. ”The response to Buckles’s work from her literature professors was rather typical, I am afraid,” Dr. Aarseth said. ”And probably still is.”