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What the hell is game studies good for?

Matthew Kaplan's picture

Heavy Rain Screenshot

[Note: I know that this post's title may make it seem like I'm taking a page from Espen Aarseth's 2005 article of a similar name and Roger Travis' 2008 response to it. Trust me when I say that I'm casting my net a little wider than the design vs. scholarship vs. play disciplinary debate... not that that debate is irrelevant, but I'm simply responding to a different exigency.]

Someone on Twitter pointed out this incendiary forum post. [Edit: Link removed for obvious reasons.] If you don't want to visit it, I don't blame you, but let me sum up: Game studies is a joke. A perpetual motion machine that pumps out erudite pseudo-philosopher after pseudo-philosopher, and no one inside this sad academic bubble is aware that the joke is on them for having taken the time to write about something as meaningless as fun and games.

Of course, I don't agree with this. But part of me sees it quite clearly. Not with shame, mind you, but with understanding. Sadness. That no one has taken it upon themselves to clearly, clearly define why any of this, any of what we do, makes any difference.

Scholars come in all flavors. Some are smug, self-satisfied jerks. Some are truly, incredibly, outstandingly nice human beings who seek to touch people in a way that improves humanity (even if that improvement is generated solely within the confines of a single classroom).

But you could say the same for people as a whole. Jerks and heroes, the lot of them. The primary difference, naturally, is that scholars—underpaid as they are in the humanities—have retained a rather prominent position in society. Working professionals like to consider themselves "scholars" if they've put in the time, thought, and effort. College students revere scholars enough to emulate their sadistic work ethic, wittingly participate in their research, and even train to become them. One would think that humanities scholars are the oracles of culture. Trained bringers of light. Again, each scholar's particular impetus—whether it's a love of research, of teaching, reading books, getting published, or just networking with a fellow sage—differs. By extension, there is no single "goal" or "driving force" behind a discipline like game studies. Everyone brings something to the table. Generalizing like the aforementioned forum poster gets you nowhere. It's little more than demonizing for the sake of taking a piss in someone's Cheerios. And that forum poster, belligerent as he is, is no imbecile. He's obviously a smart cookie who has done his homework. So I wouldn't call his post "anti-intellectual." He simply doesn't grasp the fallacious nature of his argument. (Due to stubborn insecurity? Alienation? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that you have to be severely pissed off in order to write that sort of screed.)

Portal Screenshot

The unfortunately named Game Developer's Conference exemplifies the murky mixture of game studies interlocutors: Participating are scholars, game designers who think they are scholars, game designers who have genuinely engaged in scholarship, and a slew of marketers. It's a trade show, scholarly conference, and publicity machine all in one. It's "E3 Goes to Harvard." And perhaps some of the confusion felt by those who look at game studies from the outside as some impotent intellectual pursuit or masturbatory higher-ed fad is due to all this damned blurring of what game studies is supposed to be. Quite paradoxically, it's pointedly commercial, revelatory, counter-cultural and subversive, informal, and academically valid. Everyone is a student of games, and no one is.

There are some who set barriers to entry based on the erudite terminology they use (proving just how many books and articles they've read, ad-nauseum, on the subject) and some who use cliques as gatekeeping. "You mean you aren't followed by Henry Jenkins, James Paul Gee, Jesper Juul, Ian Bogost, Janet Murray, Espen Aarseth, Sherry Turkle, Barry Wellman, Mark J.P. Wolf, Howard Rheingold, Nick Montfort, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin on Twitter to the extent that they hang on your every word? No way are YOU getting a re-tweet or response from me." (This is hyperbole, of course. I'm not even sure the above all have Twitter accounts. Some may not even know what Twitter is.)

A unique and increasingly common barrier to entry is one's relationship to the production of text. I'm not sure this has happened before outside creative writing and film studies scholarship. It used to be that in order to be a great scholar on Whitman, you didn't have to be concurrently trying to outdo Leaves of Grass. Now, the most prominent game studies scholars are expected to wear many different hats: teacher, academician, journalist, blogger, philosopher, and even designer. This kind of "well-rounded" scholarship would have been implausible even in Plato's time, and not just because they lacked the technology. It's just too much to expect of one human being, even the seemingly overachieving ones. Cheers to those who pull it off, but most of us do not and are probably incapable of doing so.

All of this and, what's worse, those participating in the discourse are still expected to be as knowledgeable about the latest games as a twenty year-old community college dropout with a subscription to Gamefly. So not only is the bar set impossibly high for entry, it's also set deceptively low. It's a gate that meets everyone halfway, right at the gut, the part of us that is a normal person with a vested interest in fun, learning, and just wants something of worth to come of all this highfalutin gab.

I'm overstating my position here. I've thrown my hat into this ring, for better or worse, and stand by much of what I've described. I like the fact that some scholars are available to the masses on Twitter. I like that design often rubs up against research. I like that people from extremely different backgrounds (e.g., computer science and English lit.) come together under the catch-all of "scholar." It's more inclusive that way. I even like that there are discipline-defining terms and requisite texts because, without them, there wouldn't be this beautiful thing called game studies (you can't have a definition without limits, after all). And boy, I appreciate the fact that game studies exists.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Screenshot

But I'm overstating this position because it is no doubt how many unfamiliar with game studies feel. What good is a conference of designers? What good is a meeting of the minds when their minds produce largely the same drivel appreciated by ten year-olds the world over? And more to the point, what good is game studies as a scholarly pursuit when the end-result of that pursuit is even more pursuing, like Sisyphus casually kicking around a boulder made of Ph.D.'s and money?

This is a question asked by many a fledgling interpretive discipline. Scholars of literary ecocriticism, for example, continue to ask each other what good teaching books about trees does if there isn't a rhetorical, forceful motive underlying the effort. Forget that one is teaching primarily to improve life and the result is merely a circle-jerk of professors guffawing over the latest theoretical approach "discovered." Or to put it another way: Have you ever met a person who professes to "get" every single David Lynch film as if they are the ultimate Rosetta Stone of hidden meanings and codes? Yeah, I imagine that scholars who aspire only to perform analysis must seem a lot like that to most people outside the ivory tower. It's fun to solve puzzles, or to unlock secrets where none exist (i.e., applying theory to a non-traditional text). Cryptanalysis is cozy and comfortable because it's what we've been trained to do since high school English class. But in and of itself, it means absolutely squat. (And we all feel kinda' sorry for that David Lynch codebreaker, don't we?)

This is not to suggest that everyone, or even most, in game studies is guilty of navel-gazing. For example, at the recent GDC, there was a panel regarding the lack of minority presence in video games. Now, on the surface this may seem an entirely fruitless discussion, but the idea is that as artifacts that reflect culture, games likewise reflect cultural attitudes, and as cultural participants, players and designers can either perpetuate paradigms or help to reshape them. It's all a little abstract, sure, and the people discussing this were hardly sociologists, but the intent is well taken.

The question, however, is what game studies scholars do with these kinds of ideas. Perhaps it's not enough even to rant at one's designer peers with regard to thinking outside the box (and it's doubtful many scholars and designers can even exert that level of influence on mainstream video games). And it's certainly not enough to present at a conference, publish an article, or write an in-depth philosophical treatise.

Coming back to ecocriticism: Scholars in that field have realized that in order to fulfill the "service" role of their scholarly pursuits, they have to connect what they do with a specific sense of community, context, and place. For example, some have studied how residents of a community use language to tell environmental narratives to urban planners and city officials. The idea is that such studies may help to better inform citizens, scientists, and supposed planning "experts" alike as to how to describe what is valued about an environment, and how to listen to the values of others.

Braid Screenshot

It's pretty impossible to find an analog for this in game studies. But there is something to be said for those in the discipline who recognize that doing means much more than saying. Ian Bogost, for instance, seeks to create educational games with pointed messages. Researchers like James Paul Gee have studied the educational worth of gaming as a form of knowledge generation in modern society, and such research may find its way into the actual classroom in the form of a new technology grant for virtual learning programs.

The idea is not that every scholar has to take it upon himself/herself to single-handedly change the world, but rather that he/she should produce research in such a way that not all of it is embedded in disciplinary jargon or kept to float from scholarly circle to scholarly circle. Some of it, perhaps the great mass of it, must be open and accessible to those outside game studies so that it can find its way through the twisting channels of popular culture and up to the surface... where theory meets practice. It's not enough to say that BioShock challenges our notions of control; you have to say explicitly what the audience is supposed to do with that thesis. Think constructively about their media consumption? Become more discerning spectators? Challenge the game's hypocritical sense of ethics by defying reductive labels of saint and sinner in their own lives? This may all seem self-evident to scholars familiar with the work and applied theory, but what's not so evident is the greater worth of what's being said.

Perhaps the malcontent forum poster was wrong to attack blogs, because scholars often use their blogs as testing grounds for the production of longer, more focused works. And some (like me) are just as likely to vent as they are to wax philosophical. This is hardly a representative sample of game studies scholarship, but the point is well taken as to the general inaccessibility of much of the disciplinary conversation in academic and professional circles. Even Bogost seems to have a penchant for creating theory-laden nuts that are positively tough to crack.

So I leave you with this idea: Allow the questions of access and motivation to inform your writing, your presentations, and your conversations. Remember that information and ideas have a nasty habit of finding their way into the most unintended of hands... and that, even though they may not seem deserving of an answer, even the angriest of critics are right to ask, "What does this have to do with me?" If you can answer that question with your research, congratulations. You're one step ahead.

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Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   PSP   Nintendo DS   PC  
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GDC

One thing I've learned to disclaim in the transition from my blog to this site:

This post is in no way a commentary on GDC. I like GDC, I like that it exists, I have no problems with it (except perhaps the name). I realize now that it probably wasn't the best example, but it's still a pretty decent example of a meeting of multiple influences, disciplines, and audiences (even if it's heavily design-centric, as the name suggests).

Valuing the so-called obvious

The seething forum poster seems to belong to the (large) group of people who believe that proving something that's pretty obvious is a complete waste of time. But I believe it's what the scientific method is all about. It's the difference between really wanting to *know* something and being content with merely supposing it's true (no matter how "obvious" the fact may be). So it's actually a very ambitious goal.

You are very right in pointing out that all this research and debate must "connect" in a meaningful way with us and our reality and deliver some kind of tangible result. In the end, the worst one can say is that game research is an expensive luxury for our society, but isn't that true of any kind of cultural activity?

Someone on Twitter pointed

Someone on Twitter pointed out this incendiary forum post. Not sure how they found it, as it seems to come from a rather obscure website, but I'm glad they did.

The site's not obscure. Icycalm aka Alex Kierkegaard - the handle for the owner of the forum, post, and site that you linked - is pretty well known and very infamous in certain game circles. Anyone that's had to deal with him in any serious capacity does not forget him. Hell, he isn't just infamous, he's actively blacklisted by a lot of people that know what he's about.

I actually encourage you to check out some of his front page articles sometime or dig deeper into the forum if you get a chance. It's a trip, I tell you. This wasn't just some random post you were linked to.

Lurker wrote: The site's

Lurker wrote:

The site's not obscure. Icycalm aka Alex Kierkegaard - the handle for the owner of the forum, post, and site that you linked - is pretty well known and very infamous in certain game circles. Anyone that's had to deal with him in any serious capacity does not forget him. Hell, he isn't just infamous, he's actively blacklisted by a lot of people that know what he's about.

Yeah, this has been pointed out repeatedly since my post first appeared on my own blog... although it seems the familiarity differs from person to person. Some bloggers with whom I converse on Twitter have never heard of the site; others treat this guy like he's the plague. In any case, I apologize for the error. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky for never having heard of the site before? :)

Reply

Not sure what the bloggers you've spoken with have said about him, but this is probably the best thread that details his little history and infamy.

http://hg101.proboards.com/index.cgi?action=display&board=general&thread=5213&page=3#108415

Thread links to a post highlighting a particularly awful incident, but the whole thread covers what he's about nicely.

And it might seem like a bizarre thing to give someone like this any amount of attention - indeed there's a reason many people deliberately advocate blacklisting him - but as is clear when looking at his writing his criticisms are hard to casually dismiss or ignore, and his deliberately abrasive attitude probably only helps his legitimacy with his sycophants, like he's speaking the harsh truths everyone else is too stupid to get. Kind of like the way John K's followers see him, even if John has nowhere near as awful a personality, to put it nicely.

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