Game Studies

Jane McGonigal

Game studies or ‘gaming theory’ is an academic discipline that deals with the critical study of games. More specifically, it focuses on game design, players, and their role in society and culture.

Game studies is an interdisciplinary field with researchers and academics from a multitude of other areas such as computer science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts and literature, media studies, communication, theology, and more. Like other media disciplines, such as television studies and film studies, game studies often involves textual analysis and audience theory. Game studies tends to employ more diverse methodologies than these other branches, however, drawing from both social science and humanities approaches.

Prior to the late-twentieth century, the academic study of games was rare and limited to fields such as history and anthropology. For example, in the early 1900s Stewart Culin wrote a comprehensive catalog of gaming implements and games from Native American tribes north of Mexico, while Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois explored the importance of games and play as a basic human activity that helps define culture. As the videogame revolution took off in the early 1980s, so did academic interest in games, resulting in a field that draws on diverse methodologies and schools of thought.

These influences may be characterized broadly in three ways: the social science approach, the humanities approach, and the industry and engineering approach. In addition to asking different types of questions, each approach tends to use different methods and tools. A large body of social scientists prefer quantitative tools and methods while a smaller group of academics from the humanities tend to prefer tools and methods that are qualitative. The industry approach is practice-driven and usually, less concerned with theory. Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and a significant part of game studies research blends them together. Tracy Fullerton and Kenji Ito’s work are examples of interdisciplinary work being pursued in game studies. The youth of the field of game studies is also another reason for blurred boundaries between approaches. Williams, in a call for greater inter-disciplinary work in communications-oriented games scholarship, noted how the ‘study of videogames is poised to repeat the mistakes of past academic inquiry.’ He argues that the youth of the field means that it is not bound to follow the traditional divisions of scholarly work and that an opportunity exists to rediscover the strengths and contributions that different scholarly traditions can offer.

Broadly speaking, the social scientific approach has concerned itself with the question of ‘What do games do to people?’ Using tools and methods such as surveys and controlled laboratory experiments, researchers have investigated both the positive and negative impacts that playing games could have on people. Among the possible negative effects of gameplay, perhaps the one most commonly raised by media and the general public has to do with violence in video games. Social learning theory (e.g., Bandura, 1986) suggests that playing aggressive video games would stimulate aggressive behavior in players in particular because the player is an active participant (as opposed to a passive observer as the case of aggression in film and television). On the other hand, catharsis theory (e.g., Feshbach and Singer, 1971) implies that playing aggressive video games would have the opposite effect by channeling latent aggression, resulting in a positive effect on players. Numerous reviews of existing literature have been written and there is no clear scientific evidence of the effects that playing violent video games might have.

As for positive effects, educators and learning scientists have also debated how to leverage the motivation students had for playing games as well as exploring the medium of video games for educational and pedagogical purposes. Malone explored the intrinsically motivating qualities that games have and how they might be useful in designing educational games. Malone and Lepper (1987) recommended four main heuristics namely challenge, fantasy, curiosity, and control for game designers and researchers to improve the user interaction interface. Kafai had schoolchildren design games to learn computer programming concepts and mathematics. Similarly, Squire has explored the use of commercial games as a means for engaging disenfranchised students in school, while Gerber has explored how video games shape students’ peripheral literacy activities; mainly reading and writing in both online and offline spaces.

In addition to their motivational factors, Gee and Shaffer have argued that certain qualities present in the medium of video games provide valuable opportunities for learning. In her book ‘Life on the Screen,’ Sherry Turkle explored how people who participated in online multiplayer games such as MUDs (Multi User Dungeons, text-based online role playing games), used their experiences with the game to explore personal issues of identity. In her book ‘Play Between Worlds,’ T. L. Taylor recounts her experience playing the massively multiplayer online game, ‘Everquest.’ In doing so, she seeks to understand ‘the nuanced border relationship that exists between MMOG players and the (game) worlds they inhabit.’

Finally, economists have also begun studying games, in particular massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), to understand human behavior better. The economic activity in these games is being studied as one would study the economy of a nation. Different theories, such as coordination game theory, can be put to the test because games can produce contexts for natural experiments, a high number of participants as well as tightly controlled experimental conditions. From this perspective, games provide a unique context in which human activity may be explored and better understood. For example, it has been suggested that the very popular MMO ‘World of Warcraft’ could be used to study the dissemination of infectious diseases because of the accidental spread of a plague-like disease in the game world.

In general terms, the humanities approach has concerned itself with the question of ‘What meanings are made through games?’ Using tools and methods such as interviews, ethnographies, and participant observation, researchers have investigated the various roles that video games play in people’s lives and activities together with the meaning they assign to their experiences. For example, Consalvo explores how players choose to play the games they buy and negotiate how, when, and for what reasons to subvert a game’s rules. It turns out that ‘cheating’ is a very complex phenomenon whose meaning is continually negotiated by players, the game industry, and various gaming sub-cultures that revolve around specific games.

Other researchers have focused on understanding video games as cultural artifacts with embedded meaning, exploring what the medium of the video game is, and situating it in context to other forms of human expression. Brenda Laurel’s book ‘Computers as Theater,’ while principally focused on applying tenets of theater criticism to the design of human-computer interface design, describes how video games are the natural result of the ‘capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate’ of computers. Rather than considering the computer as a highly efficient tool for calculating or computing, she proposed understanding the computer as a medium. The thesis of her book attempts to draw parallels between drama and the computer, with computers allowing their users to play equivalent roles to both the drama performer as well as the audience member.

Henry Jenkins, on the other hand, explores the role that video games play in a broader context he refers to as ‘transmedia storytelling.’ In Jenkins’ view, content moves between different media, and video games are a part of the general ecology of storytelling media that include movies, novels, and comic books. Similarly, Janet Murray’s ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck,’ describes the computer as a new medium for the practice of storytelling. By analyzing video games along with other digital artifacts such as hypertext and interactive chat characters, Murray explores the new expressive possibilities allowed by computers. In particular, she views video games as part of an expanded concept of storytelling she calls ‘cyberdrama.’ Espen Aarseth, in his book ‘Cybertext,’ disagrees with Murray’s idea and holds, ‘to claim there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories.’

This disagreement has been called the ludology vs. narratology debates. The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative. The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental. The idea that a video game is ‘radically different to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure’ has led the development of new approaches to criticism that are focused on video games as well adapting, re-purposing and proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about video games. A recent approach towards game studies starts with an analysis of interface structures and challenges the keyboard-mouse paradigm with what is called ‘ludic interfaces.’

Jesper Juul’s ‘Half-Real’ explores how video games blend formal rules with the imaginative experiences provided by fictional worlds. He describes the tensions faced by games studies scholars when choosing to focus on the game or the player of the game: ‘We can examine the rules as they are found mechanically in the game program or in the manual of a board game, or we can examine the rules as something that players negotiate and learn. We can also treat the fictional world as a set of signs that the game presents, and we can treat the fictional world as something that the game cues the player into imagining and that players then imagine in their own ways.’ Bogost’s comparative approach to video game criticism also stands out as one of the more recent steps in the direction of proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about games. In ‘Unit Operations,’ Bogost argues for explicating video games through a new form of criticism that encompasses the programmatic and algorithmic underpinnings of games together with the cultural and ideological units.

The industry and engineering approach is perhaps the hardest of the three approaches to present. From an engineering perspective, video games have been the context for a wide variety of technological innovations and advancements in areas such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and networking, among others. While the research pursued in these areas is mostly not about games, it is quite common for video games to be used as a context in which to demonstrate the solutions and problems solved. A counter-example to the above is Mateas and Stern’s interactive drama ‘Façade,’ a novel video game whose design and development resulted in contributions to the field of artificial intelligence.

From an industry perspective, a lot of game studies research can be seen as the academic response to the video game industry’s questions regarding the products it creates and sells. The main question this approach deals with can be summarized as ‘How can we create better games?’ with the accompanying ‘What makes a game good?’ ‘Good’ can be taken to mean many different things. Does the game provide an entertaining and engaging experience to the player? Is the game easy to learn and easy to play? Is the game innovative or does it provide the player with an opportunity to have novel experiences? Different approaches to studying this problem have looked at describing how to design games, extracting guidelines and rules of thumb for making better games, abstracting commonalities from games and understanding how they relate to each other, and studying the game playing experience from the point of view of the player. Much of this research is also dedicated to defining and constructing a vocabulary for describing games and thinking through the design of new ones .

The industrial approach can be characterized as ‘design’ or ‘product’ driven. Methodologically, a wide variety of approaches have been taken. Most often, they are attempts to re-imagine existing practices in other fields and industries to the videogame industry. Pagulayan and colleagues, for example, have worked on developing tools and practices for evaluating usability in games, while Bjork and Holopainen, borrowing from the literature on software patterns in software engineering have worked towards creating patterns for gameplay. Also, Bateman and Boon, using Myer-Briggs typology (personality tests), have conducted research to create tools to help guide the design of games for certain demographic groups by incorporating elements specifically designed to meet their needs.

There is now also an emerging field of study that looks at the ‘pre-history’ of video games, and at the branch of their roots that lie in: fairground attractions and sideshows such as shooting games; early ‘Coney Island’-style pleasure parks with elements such as large roller-coasters and ‘haunted house’ simulations; nineteenth century landscape simulations such as dioramas, panoramas, planetariums, and stereographs; and amusement arcades that had mechanical game machines and also peep-show film machines.

One Comment to “Game Studies”

  1. Spot on…a good challenging piece. Thanks for posting; now–how to apply this to my classes, the ‘fun’ begins!

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