Classroom is all fun and games for iSchool's Jin Ha Lee

Jin Ha Lee has turned a scholarly eye on a topic dear to her heart: Fun.

“It’s an important part of our life, and often undervalued,” says Lee, the new chair of the iSchool’s Master of Library and Information Science program. She’s an avid gamer and pop culture wonk who believes the way we play tells a lot about us as a society.

Like the stone and wood games of ancient cultures we study in museums, our “Minecrafts” and “Angry Birds,” “Fallouts” and “Wii Fits” and “Dungeons and Dragons” could one day give clues to who we were and how we spent our free time, says the adventurous researcher, who is working with colleagues to identify, describe, classify, and preserve video games.

She describes the games as “cultural heritage objects”—objects that disappear daily as gaming companies discard the old for the new, catering to a hungry audience of almost 200 million American game-players. A first-person shooter game, a zombie apocalypse game, and a role-playing game of inner-awakening all tell stories of our complicated 21st-century world.

“If we don’t preserve them, future generations will not know what this thing was that we spent billions and billions of dollars on, this thing that some people even got addicted to,” says the iSchool assistant professor, one of the first researchers in the country to spearhead research into how people seek and find games, using large-scale surveys and interviews.

Her office speaks to her passion—a passion she shares with her children, ages 2 and 5, who already have their own Nintendo 2DS game consoles. Crowding the shelf over Lee’s desk are characters from video games and anime’: Marvel Comics’ pudgy Baymax in protective armor, ethereal Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen,” the Japanese teen protagonist from her favorite role-playing game, “Persona,” and dozens more. She can talk about each one in depth.

“She has a wealth of knowledge about games,” says Jason Yip, an iSchool assistant professor of digital youth who is working with Lee on classifying educational video games. “It’s fun to talk to a scholar who is not only brilliant in her research but knows the form and media and actually plays the games. She’ll pull up obscure games or talk about game mechanics that few game scholars know about.”

On one wall of Lee’s office is a poster with stylized graphics of hearts, lips, fists, skulls, peace signs, smiley faces, and other symbols. This “Video Game Mood Taxonomy” is one of the tools she and colleagues are developing to define what commonly appeals to gamers. Do they want a light-hearted game, or a dark game? Something for relaxation, or something for stimulation, with lots of action? The taxonomy comes from a UW initiative she leads, the Video Game Metadata Schema developed by the iSchool’s GAMER (GAme MEtadata Research) group, in partnership with the Seattle Interactive Media Museum.

The group is finding new ways to organize interactive media and develop consistent, shared language for describing them—from historic arcade video games like “Pong” to the latest game apps. New classification models are badly needed in libraries, museums, and other institutions struggling with cataloging systems that just don’t fit the new media.

“Popular cultural artifacts like video games traditionally have not received much attention in libraries. Now they have games, movies, TV shows—all these collections—how do you organize and curate them in a meaningful way?” says Lee, who always begins her class on information services with the question: “What is the role of the library in the age of Google?”

Ultimately, Lee suggests, that role should include offering patrons sophisticated cross-media access: books, yes, but also video games, films, TV shows, and YouTube clips based on their interests and needs.

“Do librarians know which YouTube channels to recommend to kids who learn by watching videos today? We have to make sure we are really on the cutting edge,” Lee says.

Studying rapidly moving, morphing research is immensely challenging, but Lee thrives on it, digging into subjects like music information retrieval, a topic she is still exploring with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned her masters and Ph.D. in library and information science. 

Lee and other researchers have examined how music information’s needs and behaviors have shifted radically over time, from the days of vinyl and cassettes to an era of YouTube and streaming on subscription services like Spotify. 

“Many people I talked to were very much opposed to the subscription model when I first started doing user research in 2004,” says Lee. “They often said, ‘My music collection is my identity, it’s part of me, I like owning physical objects.’ When we did the survey again in 2012, a large proportion of people had turned to Pandora and Spotify. It was interesting how quickly that happened, though the resistance seemed so strong.

“The same thing happened with Netflix. So many of us just stream movies rather than buying and owning physical copies. It changes the way we experience these media and what media collections mean in our lives,” says Lee, whose own attraction to popular music began as a teen growing up in South Korea, where she first heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Her collaborators describe her as a creative scholar in touch with the new—someone fearless in embracing technology.

“Jin Ha is no stranger to jumping in and using new mathematics techniques to try out on models of user behavior,” says University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor J. Stephen Downie, Lee’s mentor and research partner.

She brings that same energy and creativity to the classroom. Her iSchool courses are engaging, with active debate and exercises that give students hands-on experience. She goes to happy hours with students. Her office doors are open and she makes time, listens hard, and takes student feedback seriously.

“She has, without a doubt, been one of the best mentors I have had at the iSchool,” says Rachel Ivy Clarke, a doctoral student and research collaborator who works with Lee on game-related projects.  “Her mentorship is interactive—a two-way street. She is always open to ideas from me and inquiring about my needs and interests, rather than just simply handing down information.”

And she is always, say colleagues, a proponent of that three letter word “f-u-n”—whether she’s studying games, music, or her latest research interest, animation and comic books.

“She is having fun with her work,” says Downie. “It’s neat, it’s groovy, and she wants other people to have fun with it, too.”