Game Studies

On the meaning of video games

"Pictures are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, call Western Union."
--Samuel Goldwyn

Scholar2 I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what video games mean. I'm interested in the ways they communicate ideas and stimulate our thoughts and emotions via narrative and gameplay. The value of this analytical process is self-evident to me, but not everyone sees it that way. In fact, some people consider interpreting video games a self-indulgent waste of time.

I recently wrote an appreciation of Aquaria, an indie game I admire for its soulful "vibe," for lack of a better word. Someone on the developer's discussion forum posted a link to my essay, and several people commented, including one of the game designers:

[designer] Every time I read someone's interpretation of the game, I feel like barfing.  Gotta learn to resist the urge to read articles about the game. Its like I feel like I'm X and someone is like "No, you're really Y".

[forum member] The way people tend to analyze and read-into creative work has always irked me to a certain degree.

[designer] In this case, it seems like a really positive article for the most part, but it labels things and organizes things in the game. For me it feels like the game is this big sprawling living creature that I'll never really understand, and when people write articles on it, it kind of feels more like a corpse that's being dissected.[1]

My friend JC over at the superb Japanmanship blog has written a very funny and uncomfortably accurate satire on overwrought academic interpretations of video games:

Super Mario Bros. vs. Marx
The communistic overtones of the adventures of Mario, a working-class plumber, being exploited by the bourgeoisie, a bone-idle princess, who is under constant attack from the lumpenproletariat, need little explanation. The fact Nintendo visualized the metaphorical specter haunting Europe in the shape of a Boo is merely the icing on the decadent cake.[2]

Some of JC's readers took the ball and ran with it:

[commenter 1] I always hated interpretations. I gag when I see people trying to see a meaning in something and even believe the author has put their interpretation in there deliberately. Should it fit into the theme of the work, OK, but when they begin to use references to classic literature like in this case, they should just go back to their poem interpretations.

[commenter 2] Yes, video games are the pornography for much academic masturbation these days. I take it as a sidelong compliment and forget about it.

Believe it or not, I often share these sentiments. Early in my career I delivered my share of mind-numbingly arcane conference papers, none of which did much to advance knowledge or educate students. They advanced me to tenure, and that's how the game is played. But I'm out of that game now, and this blog is an effort to find another way. 

I realize the whole "what does this novel/painting/game mean?" approach can be tiresome and fraught with silliness at times, but one could say the same for all forms of criticism in all media. The fact that there is too much esoteric or theory-mangled criticism out there does not mean criticism or analysis have no place in our consideration of video games.

I believe "reading into" games--trying to understand them in a way that has meaning to us--is an inevitable and positive pursuit. I work and teach in the theater for my "real job" and I find that people see all kinds of things that I may or may not have intended in my plays. When something stimulates us emotionally or intellectually (as some games do for me) we're bound to respond through whatever lenses we see the world, and that inevitably affects what we think a game means or says, if anything.

When you, the writer, composer, designer, or whatever, put it out there, it's basically out of your hands, and that's a good thing. The worst response, I think, is "well that was nice." Better to provoke something meaningful, even if it has no relationship to what you were thinking as the creator. We make meaning from our experiences. That's what humans do, and we each do it in our own way. This, too, is a good thing.

Scholars like James Paul Gee (whom I greatly respect) have written about the "meaning" of Tetris. That takes things farther than I can make sense of. It all sounds like mental gymnastics to me - interesting to think about, but ultimately too much of a stretch and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. Tetris is a game about sliding blocks, and that's pretty much it.

But is it possible to scrutinize the paradox of Kojima's pacifism expressed in gloriously violent games? I think it is, and to me it's a worthy endeavor because those games have a rhetorical and political dimension. They can also be damn fun to play, but that doesn't negate their other qualities. In fact, it only enhances them.

JC wisely cautions that we must be careful not to limit our analysis of games to a single framework, such as cinematic comparisons:

I'm just a little weary of the constant film-videogame linking that goes on everywhere, in the media, even within the industry itself. It's obvious where it stems from, film possibly being the closest medium to compare this exciting new technology to, but the connection is flawed in so many ways.

That isn't to say it's not fun, but it is spurious. Hopefully once the industry and medium grow up and have been around longer it can be fully self-referential like other media. But comparing Kojima to Fincher is doing both men and both media a disservice and actually limits the potential scope of your examination of videogames.[3]

Fair enough. To do this well, we need to develop a language sufficient for analyzing video games on their own terms, not merely borrow terminology from other media or disciplines. This discourse is emerging in the specialized field of game studies, but I believe other disciplines like my own can make valuable contributions.

I hope when the stigma attached to seriously studying video games diminishes--and believe me, that stigma is very strong in my profession--we will see scholars and enthusiasts from various disciplines bringing their experiences to bear on this rich medium. The trick, in my view, will be avoiding the theory-school quagmires and niche-focus turf wars we academics seem bent on creating. I'm pinning my hopes on blogs like Japanmanship (Edge Magazine's January blog of the month!) to help keep us honest.

Now back to my post-colonial Marxist deconstruction of PaRappa the Rapper.

image courtesy of amartinsdebarros at deviantart

Video game canon

Warcraft2b At the most recent Game Developers Conference a panel of distinguished figures--game designers Steve Meretzky and Warren Spector, Joystiq editor Christopher Grant, and game scholar Matteo Bittanti--revealed the first 10 games to be listed in the Digital Game Canon:

Yes, groundbreaking games like Pong (1972) and Adventure (AKA Colossal Cave Adventure, 1976) should have made the list, and the absence of even a single RPG seems an oversight. I also have concerns about the whole notion of canons and their inevitable aesthetic, ideological, and political biases. For what it's worth, I discuss the game canon and these concerns in the next podcast, which will be posted in a day or so. If you're interested in any of these issues, be sure to listen.

Having said all that, I think it's a good list and I'm grateful to the IGDA's game preservation group for working hard to ensure that these games and all their related materials are available to future designers, scholars, and players. It's a noble effort, and no list of 10 games could ever satisfy everyone. Fortunately, this is an ongoing effort, and the list of preserved games will continue to grow.

If you'd like to listen to Spector, Bittanti and the others inducting these games, the IGDA has made the audio files and their accompanying slide presentations available here. You can also download PDF versions of all the presentations with accompanying MP3 files.

Listening to one of the true gaming gods, Steve Meretzky, discuss why Zork and Civilization matter so much is a real treat. Thanks to the IGDA for sharing it with all of us.

What language should video games speak?

Languagealign2 A couple of days ago I enjoyed an interesting exchange with Daniel Radosh, author of the recent New York Times op-ed piece on video games. I posted a brief essay on his Times article; he responded with a helpful comment; and I replied with another comment post. I also devoted part of yesterday's podcast to some of the issues raised in Daniel's article.

Not to be outdone by either of us, Wes Jacks (a graduate student in film studies at the University of Wisconson--and an old friend) has submitted an extraordinarily thoughtful essay that expands and reexamines some of the current video game/early cinema parallels articulated by Radosh and others:

The problem with the appeal to older forms of storytelling is that the new medium sacrifices a sense of its uniqueness. Although I admit to entering dangerous waters, I would argue (alongside a theorist like Kracauer) that a film like Umberto D, which was written directly for the screen and depends so heavily on the visual style developed by the director, is inherently ‘more cinematic’ than a faithful cinematic adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Likewise, I'd consider a game like Katamari more intimately tied to the potential of the video gaming medium than the latest LOTR spinoff.

You can read the full text of Jacks' essay here.

Gamers moving in tribes

Wowplayer I have a soft spot for academics who don't talk like academics. So I'm especially pleased by Gamasutra's series of five short interviews with Dr. Ed Castronova, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, Dr. Henry Jenkins, and PhD. Candidates Jeff McNeill and Florence Chee. Each opines on the subject of World of Warcraft's domination of the MMO market:

I started each interview out with a simple premise: that gamers were moving in tribes. World of Warcraft, in my mind, wasn’t the ‘king of the mountain’ because it was the best world out there, whatever our criteria might be. It was prominent because the right people played it, giving it a kind of social gravitational mass. The social bonds, whether forged in or outside of a game, influenced when gamers would move, and for how long they would stay. Some of these interviews dug deeply into this idea, while others carved out their own intriguing territory.

Full article

Brainy Gamer Interview: Mark J. P. Wolf

Wolf_2 I'm delighted to bring you my interview with Mark J. P. Wolf, one of the leading figures in video game studies and author of The Medium of the Video Game (2001), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), and the forthcoming The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond.

Mark  is an Associate Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has a Ph.D. from the Critical Studies Program of the School of Cinema/Television at the University of Southern California. He is also the director and founder of the Multimedia Communication Program at Concordia.

In the interview Mark talks about his forthcoming book, which he describes as "the first academic history of video games" ; the status of game studies and the value of older games ; and his next major project, Subcreation: Building Imaginary Worlds, which focuses on "the construction of imaginary worlds like those of Tolkien, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on."

I want to thank Mark for graciously accepting my invitation to chat and for being so generous with his time.

Full interview

Debut of new game studies journal

Eludamos_2 Eludamos, a new peer-reviewed game studies journal appeared this week. It's available online in either web or PDF format and will be published biannually. Its focus and scope:

ELUDAMOS positions itself as a publication that fundamentally transgresses disciplinary boundaries. The aim is to join questions about and approaches to computer games from decidedly heterogeneous scientific contexts (for example cultural studies, media studies, (art) history, sociology, (social) psychology, and semiotics) and, thus, to advance the interdisciplinary discourse on digital games.

This approach does not exclude questions about the distinct features of digital games as an aesthetic and cultural form of articulation, on the contrary, the issue is to distinguish their media specific characteristics as well as their similarity to other forms of aesthetic and cultural practice. That way, the editors would like to contribute to the lasting distinction of international game studies as an academic discipline.

Happy launch and best of luck to Eludamos!


Kotaku writes a Brainy Gamer prescription

Go-to gaming blog Kotaku posted a call for papers today that I almost didn't bother to read (virtual economies aren't really my forte). But then this got my attention:

The divide between mainstream 'we play games' ideas on games and academic 'we study games' ideas on games is occasionally astonishing for both how far apart those two worlds can be and how close together they sometimes are. I'm not in a field that deals with this sort of stuff, but I'll be keeping an eye out for the issue next August.

Bingo! This sometimes wide, sometimes narrow divide is the very thing we're interested in here. Excuse me, ma'am, this looks like a job for The Brainy Gamer!