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Game Studies: A Model

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.

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 in craft.

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 text?

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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