In the Library
This is a collection of some of my thoughts on game studies--where it's
going, what it should be, who should be doing it, and how. Along the
way, there's also some ranting about what's wrong with how it's being done
today. It should go without saying that these are my personal opinions...
but just in case anyone's toes get stepped on, take it as an idiosyncratic
and probably misguided manifesto. I'm also not presenting this as
somehow flawless or perfect; there are many approaches, and this is the
one that makes sense to me.
So, what is this thing, "Game Studies"? I honestly don't know. There
are at least as many versions of it as there are practicioners at this point,
and it's beyond my talents or interests to catalogue what all of them are.
In a very rough sketch, what I mean when I use the term is the collection
of practices and products of teaching and scholarship about games within
the academic setting.
I see the field as having several separate yet complementary functions:
At the moment, the field of game studies suffers from what I see as a
confusion between criticism and craft. Craft is the driving value behind
the introduction of game studies curricula in the academy today. There
are a great many students who would like to become game industry workers--developers,
managers, and journalists. This provides an opening in the educational
marketplace because it is a clear value proposition: students can justify
spending the money on an education in game studies because it leads to getting
a job in the game industry. This is important because any education
these days requires rather a lot of money, and those who are spending that
money (either the students--usually through loans that will need to be paid
off at some point in the future--or their parents) need to feel like they
are getting something in return. It also costs the university money
to provide an education--if nothing else, the salaries of the professors
who do the teaching, and universities are already all-too-often seen from
outside the ivory tower as costing a lot of money and providing very little
benefit. So, the craft rationale works for all involved.
- Producing analyses of games that provide insights and theoretical
frameworks for engaging with games. (What I will call "criticism")
- Teaching students to become game industry workers. (What I will call
- Teaching students about what games are and have been and how they
function. (What I will call "education")
- Teaching students to become academics in the field of game studies.
(What I will call "professionalization")
However, there are certain fundamental flaws to this logic. For one,
there is no guarantee that people with degrees in gaming are going to get
actual jobs making actual games. The industry is growing, sure, but
not fast enough to absorb every graduate of every game studies program.
As these programs proliferate, this will become ever more severe of
a divide. Getting involved in making games is "cool", it's "sexy".
Because so many people play games and enjoy those games, the industry
has some of what the film and music industry have--a fantasy allure. There
are thousands, if not millions, of young people playing games today who dream
of making the games of tomorrow that everyone plays and loves; most of them
want to be designers, the creative force behind a blockbuster game, in much
the same way that they want to be rock stars, pop idols, movie stars, or
oscar-award winning directors. Many of them are willing to put down
tens of thousands of dollars to have a chance to do it. Practically
none of them will succeed.
Furthermore, many of the people who are teaching them have no experience
in the game industry. Sure, some of them make games as hobbies, some
even seriously use games as a framework to explore their ideas, but there
simply aren't that many skilled game makers out there teaching students
how to make games, for the simple reason that most skilled game makers are
busy making games. Now, that will change over time (and has already
begun to). Working in the game industry is generally very stressful
and the industry itself is very unstable. For these reasons, people
burn out on making a living doing it; there are only so many months of crunch
time you can endure, so many companies folding underneath you that you can
survive, so many relocations of your life and family that can be handled,
and then the stability of an academic job starts looking pretty good.
So, the present lack of qualified teachers is going to go away. But,
that leads to another problem, because the academy is not driven by work
experience, it's driven by research and publishing. To continue to
work within the academy, to get tenure, to fit within the academic model,
these teachers are going to need to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals.
They will, in fact, fall into the age-old problem of the academy, that
the best researchers are not always the best teachers, the best teachers
are not always the best researchers, and neither of them are necessarily
good writers. In other words, the teachers of the craft are going to
have to engage with criticism.
In some ways, the reverse is already the case. Most of the game studies
courses being offered today are being taught by critics--established academics
who out of personal interest (in collusion with the desires of students)
are teaching craft. As you might imagine, it's not necessarily a good
fit, something akin to teaching physics and asking your students to be engineers
based on that. While there are certainly a broad variety of issues
that can be approached from a theoretical perspective, there are also a host
of things that you need to get hands on with to really develop your understanding.
Many of the best programs, in fact, recognize this and incorporate
project work as part of their curricula. However, it is one thing to
do project work for a small group in an academic setting, and quite another
to do a commercial game project with a large team of professionals, a multimillion
dollar budget, and all the pressures that come with that.
A slight tangent--one of the things I find personally irksome is the number
of academics who call themselves "designers" because they have built games,
when these games are non-commercial small-scale projects produced in their
spare time and/or with their friends. Even worse is when these "designers"
then hold forth as experts on large-scale commercial projects. On
the one hand, they use the appeal of the commercial products (things like
Grand Theft Auto 3) to draw audiences and generate student interest; on
the other hand, they focus their research and "design work" on games that
appeal only to very small niche communities--things like interactive fiction,
or political gaming. When these people then turn around and hold forth
on how game development should be done, how the industry needs to
grow or adapt or evolve, I just want to slap them silly. People need
to realize that playing games, or playing at making games, does not qualify
them to speak as authorities on how games are made in the game industry.
So, getting back to the topic at hand, what we need to do is to re-define
what the function of game studies is. We need a model for game studies
that allows for research and publication of scholarship. We need a
way to justify spending university and student resources to teach game studies.
We need to separate craft from criticism and let those who are good
at one rather than the other focus on what they are good at. To this
end, I propose that we look at an academic tradition that includes both
branches (criticism and craft): literary studies. Just as literary
criticism is separate from (yet related to) creative writing--the two disciplines
are recognized as requiring different qualifications and serving different
ends--so should game studies be divided into general education and training
I hope that it is clear that games are a creative endeavor, and thus that
game studies should be located within the humanities rather than the sciences.
While programming is certainly a significant portion of game development
(we couldn't have electronic games without it), the research and scholarship
in game programming can already be done under the rubric of computer science.
While the craft side of game education would be interdisciplinary,
the bulk of what needs to be done in game studies education falls under the
study of the creative arts.
So, what would game studies education look like? Quite bluntly, we
should teach students how to be better players of games, just as literary
studies teaches students to be better readers of texts. There are
easy parts of this to sell in the established humanities model: teaching
students the history of games, teaching students about how different people
(and different cultures) approach games and engage with them, and teaching
them the structural underpinnings of games and their genres. The harder
sell is that we should actually teach them how to play games. At first
glance, this must seem absurd: students spending tens of thousands of dollars
to become better Tetris players? Hosting LAN parties so students can
frag each other in Quake? Comparing neighborhoods created in the Sims?
I would posit that this is no less ridiculous than asking students to spend
tens of thousands of dollars to read books. Of course, one could argue
that reading books is, itself, a ludicrous pursuit to spend such money on,
but then again, the humanities, and particularly the advocates of a liberal
arts education, already have a host of well-formulated arguments with which
to answer that charge. Learning how to decipher a game's structure
and to devise a strategy to achieve success involves developing analytical
and problem-solving skills that are applicable to a wide range of fields
(and especially applicable to business). Learning to recognize the
Bartle types and their patterns of behavior is excellent training for anyone
going into a team-oriented workplace (and what business these days does not
involve teamwork and cooperation among individuals?). Even the physical
act of playing games has been shown to have benefits for those using virtual
interfaces to do work, which is already becoming common in surgery and manufacturing
and will only become moreso in the future. Developing the traditional
humanities skills in a game studies framework rather than detracting from
a student's education, builds on the lessons they are learning in other
departments--economics in strategy games, psychology in multiplayer games,
history in any range of simulations, etc.--and it does so in a format that
is both engaging to the students and provides its own measurable standards
of success and failure.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating making games to teach; I am saying
we should be teaching students how to play games, better than they are doing
it now. They should be taught to decipher game logics, to identify
the constraints and mechanisms of games. We should teach students
how to identify a jumping puzzle and to find the optimal path through a
space. We should teach students how to identify the tradeoffs of different
equipment loadouts in first-person shooters and to choose the most effective
tools to use. We should teach students to differentiate between navigable
and non-navigable spaces, to test the limits of movement and to discover
where games can be broken. We should teach them to look for easter
eggs, cheats, and exploits. We should teach them to play turn-based
and real-time strategy games, both single and multiplayer. We should
teach them to read AI patterns and limitations in sports games and to adapt
their strategies to win.
In the process, they will learn to think faster, to react quickly to changes
in conditions, to consider multiple overlapping forces and to weigh the
relations between them. They will learn to induce rules from behaviors.
They will learn to identify traditions and innovations and to judge
where each succeeds and fails. They will learn to observe their own
interactions with games, to identify the personal biases that incline them
to like one type of game and to dislike another; they will learn that their
own experience is one of many possible engagements. They will learn
that games are an expression of multifaceted cultures, that they bear definite
relations not only to the technologies of their time but also to the belief
systems. They will learn that games are simply another form of the
ages-old attempt to address who we are and what we are doing here. They
will develop more nuanced understandings of what makes something good or
effective or valuable.
And game studies criticism will provide them the tools to do it with. This
is where game studies needs to go, not into developing some arbitrary taxonomy
for classifying games, but into real investigation of the mechanics of games:
how do they work, why is one implementation more compelling than another?
Game studies shouldn't be trying to read games as stories, but throwing
light onto why some storytelling approaches work and others don't, into
teaching us how to use the stories that games tell to be more successful
at playing. Game studies shouldn't be telling us how to make games,
it should be telling us how to play them in such a way that when we're done
playing, we haven't just killed time, we've become better people. What
do game logics teach us about ourselves?
We shouldn't be worried about "game theory"--which is, after all, a specific
set of mathematically modelable interactions--we should be looking at the
intersection between theory and games. What's the relationship between
Plato's Idealism and the distribution of unit characteristics in a real-time
strategy game? How does Althusser's theory of ideology function when
the player is being interpellated not as a subject in the world but as a
character in a game? What does Butler's theory of performative identity
reveal to us about the relationship between virtual selves and their real-world
counterparts? What happens to Derrida's division between speech and
text when we're talking about persistent state worlds, where speech acts
happen as text? What can Foucault's analysis of discourse tells us
about the reception of Grand Theft Auto 3? How is the engagement of
fantasy in an interactive mechanism different from engagement with a static
There is a ripe field of criticism available--real criticism, that takes
the sophistication, training, and formal logic of the academy to get at.
It is ideally suited to those who play games--not as a diversion but
as exercise of all the intellectual faculties--rather than those who make
them. It can be taught, its skills can be passed on; those students
who have a particular aptitude for it can be professionalized, trained to
be the critics of tomorrow--not game reviewers (that is a craft skill, after
all: journalistic writing about games) but game researchers. It can
be published in journals; its value can be judged and used as the basis of
hiring and promotion decisions. It can be used to teach students about
games, to develop all of those essential skills that go into living a life
of the mind as well as of the body.
It is a logical adaptation of the structures and purpose of the academy
to develop this new game criticism and to teach it. The value proposition
is a little harder to sell than the craft path, but it is infinitely more
valuable to the students, to the academy, and to the culture at large. Games
are not going away. If anything, their influence is growing larger
and more commonplace by the day. The demand is there; the need is there.
It will happen. There will be a game studies field, and the
sooner we get past the current dead ends that are occupying far too much
time and attention, the sooner it will flourish.
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