“How does play become industrialized as part of the larger practice of a culture industry?” This question is central to the research of William Dunkel, an informatics Ph.D. candidate in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS).
“To explore this question, I examine a particular regional subsection of the global esports industry: Korea,” says Dunkel. As one of the biggest esports markets in the world, and as a global exporter of pop culture (owing to the Korean Wave known as “Hallyu”), Korea is an ideal focal point for Dunkel’s research.
Now, thanks to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, Dunkel will spend the 2023-24 academic year in Seoul, collaborating with Dr. Young Yim Doh, a distinguished expert in the Games & Life Lab at KAIST [Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology].
Dunkel was one of five UCI students selected to the Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. “UC Irvine is proud of our latest cohort of Fulbright students for their dedication to forging international collaborations to advance research, training and service aimed at addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” said Hal Stern, UCI provost and executive vice chancellor. “These students serve as exceptional representatives of our university.”
At the core of Dunkel’s research project is the intersection of area studies, game studies and informatics. “Despite the overwhelming critical and popular triumphs of Korean esports, I’ve uncovered a fascinating paradox,” he says. “Irrespective of their achievements, Korean esport players often find themselves lacking the recognition and security so often connected to Hallyu celebrity.” His research aims to shed light on the complex relationships between professional players and their ardent fan base, the intricate dynamics between professionals and the industry, and the delicate balance between professionals and the state.
“Korea has been very successful at manufacturing a labor force capable of meeting the global demands of industrialized play,” explains Dunkel, “yet despite this overwhelming critical and popular success at esports, Korean professional players find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the recognition and security that such success would traditionally guarantee.” To better understand this phenomenon, Dunkel will look at the local conditions of the Korean esports industry to identify how play becomes industrialized, examining the process of self-commodification and how certain aspects work against that very commodification.
— Shani Murray