A Brief and Incomplete History of Game Studies
Though games have always been an important part of culture, it is only relatively recently that they have been studied in any serious manner. While there has always been a tradition of commentary in sports, with analysis of individual games and players, along with poetic tangents on the sports themselves, there was for a long time very little activity when it came to examining games in and of themselves. All this has changed in just the last five to ten years. Across the United States programs are sprouting in universities, each offering to teach game design to eager and qualified young students. While these efforts are focused mostly on video games, there is still a palpable enthusiasm for the study of games that was not there before. Now more than ever though, the larger unsolved questions of game design loom above the discussion. What is a game? What is the relationship between games and other forms of art? Finally, in what ways are games a form of expression different from more traditional practices? Each of these questions has been raised at different times, with many brave souls all pouring buckets of ink in pursuit of the answers.
One of the first to attempt a description of ‘game’ was the Dutch historian and philosopher Johan Huizinga in the early part of the last century. Concerned primarily with the effect of games, and especially play, on the history of Europe, he laid the groundwork for a definition of games that even to today has not been substantially altered. For Huizinga games were activities that took place inside what he called the ‘magic circle’. This was a space in which the actions of the participants were wholly divorced from their meanings in the real world, but still gravely important to the world of the game. Inside the ‘magic circle’ things that outside of it would seem at best ridiculous and at worst deviant, were suddenly treated as commonalities, which could be sanctioned and encouraged. Games then had a cathartic purpose, which was not based in rational, material thinking, but instead followed an internal logic that could not be questioned without risk of destroying the game itself and disrupting play.
Thirty years later a Frenchman named Roger Caillois expanded on Huizinga’s ideas and classified games into four types, as well as placing them along a spectrum. The philosopher and writer explained that games could all be seen in terms of a few different qualities: ‘agon’, which described games of competition; ‘alea’, which covered games of chance; ‘mimicry’, which involved games where players assumed different roles and personas; and ‘ilinx’, or games of vertigo. According to Caillois, games could be only one of these, or they could be combinations, with some combinations obviously being more fruitful than others. In addition to this, all games could be found along a spectrum, which stretched from ‘ludus’, a more structured, rule-based kind of play, on one end, to ‘paidia’, which he saw as more free form and spontaneous, on the other. In his definition of play he included not just recognized games such as Chess or Football, but also activities like waltzing and mountain climbing, and perhaps his most controversial decision, theatre and “spectacles in general”.
Of modern game scholars, Eric Zimmerman is probably one of the most recognized. A frequent speaker and cited thinker, he heads his own game development studio in New York City, teaches at the Parson’s School of Design, and has published two books, one with colleague Katie Salen. Synthesizing the work of both Huizinga and Callois, and a number of other game scholars, Salen and Zimmerman presented a schema for the study of games. In their minds, any study of a game must necessarily start with an examination of its rules. The rules then, are the basic building blocks of all games, the foundation on top of which the rest of the experience settles. Rules then produce play with the addition of players. This is the second layer of any game, the skin of the onion which encompasses the heart. This process, however, takes place within the arena of culture, where the larger meanings of the alchemical process of rules and play are ultimately felt. Culture, of course, also influences every aspect of a game, from the behavior of the players to the interpretations of the rules.
The Copenhagen School, a group of contemporary games scholars who are sometimes referred to, and refer to themselves as, ‘the ludologists’, has been the most zealous in defining the formal properties of games. Espen Aarseth, who some would consider the School’s spiritual leader, calls games ‘ergodic’ texts, texts which require non-trivial effort in order to traverse. Here ‘non-trivial’ is taken to mean actions that are qualitatively different from simply turning a page or traveling to a theatre. Perhaps the most outspoken member of the Copenhagen School, though certainly not its most aggressive, is Jesper Juul. Juul has looked back on the existing scholarship about games and decided that games are those human activities which are rule-based, and have variable outcomes of differing values, which require player effort in order achieve, with the players being attached to one or more of those outcomes. While most famous for their role in the somewhat anti-climactic ‘narratology vs ludology’ debate of the early part of the century, the Copenhagen school has done much to help the study of games become accepted as an independent academic field.
Not all scholars that are important to the study of games are specifically focused on games themselves. Brenda Laurel has made an argument for interface design to take a cue from theatre. In her mind the designer of any interaction must view the participant as an actor on a stage. Instead of having unconnected instances of agency scattered around, the designer must look at the experience in a holistic way, following a unity of action. By constantly but subtly narrowing the possibilities of agency, a designer can focus the interactions of a user into more meaningful events. The applications of this advice when it comes to games is obvious, and Laurel herself attempted to turn her insights into a working business specializing in creating games for young girls.
Following the example set by Laurel, two scholars took up the subject of the dramatic possibilities of games, concentrating of what could be called ‘interactive drama’ or ‘cyberdrama’. Janet Murray has argued that games are primarily mimetic, meaning that their narratives are enacted. This is in opposition diegetic, where the story is told. Making comparisons to the Italian commedia’delle arte, she challenges game developers to find a way to tell rich, interesting stories through games. Her sister-in-arms is Marie-Laure Ryan, who has worked on the more formal questions of how narrative and agency can co-exist. Laying out different architectures of how agency can be given without compromising the coherence of the story, she lists possibilities from the typical branching structure to a more open and episodic strategy. What unites the above three thinkers is not the belief that games are intrinsically story-telling media, but that they are capable of telling interesting and worthwhile narratives.
A discussion of games should also look to inspiration from the fine arts. Though the video game industry crashed in the early 1980’s, it slowly recovered and once again reached cultural prominence through the 90’s. At the same time there was a movement in the fine arts that was later given the name ‘Relational Aesthetics’ by the French writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud. Though painting and especially sculpture had played with the idea of participation in the past through anamorphism and kineticism, what separated works that fell under the category of ‘relational aesthetics’ was that they emphasized the social aspects of the work over anything else. This social relationship could be between the artist and the participant, or between the various participants of an art piece, or even bring attention to the relationship of the participant with the art world in general. Though games are never mentioned in his examinations, it is clear that Bourriaud is commenting on phenomena and asking questions that are all too familiar to anyone acquainted with gaming culture.
With similarities abound between games and more accepted forms of art, it is clear that games have equal potential to be an expressive form of media, perhaps one that will prove to be incredibly important to the coming generations. This is the position of Ian Bogost, an academic and game designer who has been at the forefront of the so-called ‘Serious Games’ movement. In his opinion similar methods of expression underlie games, literature, and cinema. The atomic structure of any work of art is made of what he calls ‘unit operations’. These unit operations are small kernels of independent meaning that work together to produce the larger meaning of the work itself. In games a unit operation could be a particular game mechanic, such as the ability to water crops, while in cinema it is the trope of the industrious farmer. Any analysis of the way that these individual units create both large and small levels of meaning is what Bogost terms ‘unit analysis’, and is an ideal way to critically examine videogames.
Valuable perspectives can, however, be found beyond the insular walls of academia. Tim Rogers is one of the founding members of the ‘New Games Journalism’ movement. Though loosely defined, the movement was, and is, a primarily internet-based reaction to the kind of criticism typically found in enthusiast magazines about gaming. Instead of giving a particular game a ‘score’, in his reviews Rogers relates moments from games to moments from his own life. He discusses how a particular game affected him, and how the events that surrounded his playing affected his relationship to the game. By trying to put emphasis back on what is arguably the most important aspect of a game, the experience of the player, Rogers shows how one can reach a deeper understanding of the purpose and design of play, and how both those things can help to reach a deeper understanding of life.
Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh was a co-conspirator of Rogers in the New Games Journalism movement, and now works as a columnist for the gaming business website Next Generation. While Rogers looks for correlation and correspondences, Rossel Waugh is primarily concerned with metaphor. The danger, in his analysis, is for games to take their metaphors too seriously, mostly by not understanding that they are metaphors and not optimal design strategies. Citing the stagnation of the Japanese role-playing game, he argues that instead of examining why a certain metaphor works in some games, such as random battles, designers simply look at the success of the game, appropriate the mechanics, and end up eventually applying them into a context in which they lose their relevance. What Rossel Waugh calls for is an understanding that mechanics are metaphors, and while those metaphors may be meaningful in many different contexts, they were designed with a specific environment in mind. Disregarding the original intention of a mechanic can not only lead to awkwardness in the overall design of a game, but also severely cripple its potential to appeal to anyone not well versed in the traditions of a given genre.
Games are becoming a larger and larger industry every year, but in many ways it is still not a popular industry. While there really is almost no one in the western world that has never played a game, or doesn’t participate in some sport in some fashion, the plurality of people still do not consider themselves ‘gamers’. While it is clear that this is a comment on the products of the game industry, it is also fair to say that those products are a reflection of the vision of the industry as a whole. We are still, to a certain extent, divorced from our history and groping blindly into design space. There are the bright lights that guide us, the innovators, the auteurs, but for the majority of us the darkness is consuming, because the darkness is within ourselves. The general lack of clarity and agreement about the fundamental questions of game design is a failure of our intellectuals to provide satisfactory answers and disperse them. This may be changing though, as the important advances in the aesthetics of games are made by game designers and players instead of academics. In the end it is the responsibility of every serious person involved in this pursuit to find the answers not just in themselves, but look to and understand the work of others, so that we can avoid marking the same trails through design space twice.
Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bogost, Ian (2006). Unit Operations – An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Bourriaud, Nicolas (1998). Relational Aesthetics. France, Les Presse Du Reel.
Caillois, Roger (1961). Man, Play, and Games. Glencoe, The Free Press.
Huizinga, Johan (1950). Homo Ludens. Boston, The Beacon Press.
Juul, Jesper (2003). The Game, The Player, The World: Looking For A Heart of Gameness. Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht University, Universiteit Utrecht.
Laurel, Brenda (1991). Computers as Theatre. Menlo Park, Addison Wesley.
Murray, Janet (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, Simon & Schuster/Free Press.
Rogers, Tim (2005). Life, Non-Warp: DX. New Orleans, The Gamer’s Quarter.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (1997). Interactive Drama: Narrativity in a Highly Interactive Environment. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v043/43.3ryan.html, Modern Fiction Studies.
Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric (2003). Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Waugh, Eric-Jon Rossel (2006). Games and Metaphor. http://www.next-gen.biz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3332&Itemid=35, Next Generation.
3 thoughts on “A Brief and Incomplete History of Game Studies”
“There are the bright lights that guide us, the innovators, the auteurs, but for the majority of us the darkness is consuming, because the darkness is within ourselves.”
That’s so emo of you, Charles. Nice work so far, and your command of language is comparably better than the typical game design scholar. I would like you to expound on this point, however:
“With similarities abound between games and more accepted forms of art, it is clear that games have equal potential to be an expressive form of media, perhaps one that will prove to be incredibly important to the coming generations.”
Equal potential? Yes, games can be expressive, and maybe even (someday) as expressive as music or painting. But there’s a limit, no? Where do you see that limit (educated guess)? And don’t tell me the sky is the limit once we brighten the darkness that’s inside us.
Haha, yeah, I get kind of self-indulgent sometimes.
That’s a good question though, and one that I’ve been struggling with recently. My current belief is that there is no limit to what a game can express. However, that expressive potential can be limited depending on the medium with which the game is manifested. Card games are going to be better at expressing certain things that field games might find awkward, but field games are going to be able to express things that a card game can’t. The same is true for boardgames, videogames, pen and paper RPGs, etc.
The same things could be said about narrative, right? A written novel is going to be better at conveying some things and a film is going to be better at conveying others. Abstraction, as well, is something that’s manifested differently in different art forms.
I think one of the potentials games have is for communicating ideas to the player through trial-and-error. Certain strategies work in a game and others done, which makes for a compelingly simple moral schema. Lessons can be learned in games not so much because they’re ethically correct, but because they’re pragmatic.
A fine paper, though it really only introduces us to what’s already been said in game criticism. Now, I’d like to hear your specific take.