I can’t stand gamers.
No, that’s not quite true. I can’t stand the concept of gamers.
And no, I’m not some anti-gaming nutcase …
Hell, I like videogames so much that I’m doing a friggin’ PhD in game studies.
– Douglas Wilson, in GameSetWatch, April 2008
Should we care if Douglas Wilson, a doctoral candidate in game studies, hates us? I think we have to.
The problem here isn’t the old town-gown conflict; it’s not that game studies scholars look down their noses at the working-class gamers who happen to reside in a virtual neighborhood that borders their own. If that were the case, gamers – including academics like me who study games but remain firmly outside the “game studies” camp – could just say, “Well, Douglas, we hate you too.”
Unfortunately, it’s worse than that; and although we’ve been ignoring it, we probably shouldn’t ignore it any longer. What follows is meant to be provocative. I hope those I am trying to provoke will take it in that spirit, and provoke me in turn.
The problem with game studies – the thing that gives rise to opinions like Wilson’s – is that the effort to create and maintain the discipline is keeping gaming from winning the respect it deserves. Against all appearances, scholars are pursuing game studies to the detriment of gamer culture.
By pretending that game studies stands alone as a unified discipline rather than at the nexus of various other fields, scholars of game studies (and those of departments that call themselves things like “digital media studies”) are institutionalizing exactly what Wilson feels: antipathy to the real culture of gaming. The more entrenched the notion becomes that gamers are abnormal and defective, the longer it will take for real works of art like Sins of a Solar Empire, BioShock and, yes, even Halo to vindicate gaming as a worthwhile pursuit.
“Quibus lusoribus bono?” means “as a benefit to what gamers?” Cicero used to ask “Cui bono?” – “as a benefit to whom?” – when he wanted a jury to see a defendant’s guilt. The defendant, Cicero said, had a motive because he gained something from the crime. It’s hardly surprising that game studies benefits academics with the stability of tenured jobs, but I’m only exaggerating slightly when I say there’s a crime here, too. J’accuse.
In 2005, Espen Aarseth, the founder of the discipline’s eponymous journal, Game Studies, published an article called “Game Studies: What is it Good For?” The piece you’re reading right now is my plea to gamers to turn the tables on Aarseth and other doyens of game studies like Henry Jenkins, Janet Murray, Ian Bogost and Jesper Juul, not to mention the scions of their race like Douglas Wilson. Wilson beseeches us in his gamer-hating piece to stop seeing ourselves as gamers; I want us to encourage him to see that gamer culture needs to broaden and expand, not wither away. He wants us to embrace the goals of game studies, but achieving those goals, unfortunately, will help him and not us.
In his 2005 article, Aarseth writes:
Indeed, with such a wealth of diverse disciplines involved, how can there be a center, or consensus? Will computer scientists working on game design ever want to talk to cultural critics who are examining the ideological significance of game iconography? Are we naïve to think that there will ever be bridges among the technological, aesthetic, and ethnographic game research traditions?
The idea of a center, if you’ll permit a bit of hyperbole, is the pernicious seed that’s growing into the poison tree of a gamer-hating discipline.
It’s a simple process. When you take or teach courses called, for example, Game Studies 101; when you hold a degree in “new media studies” (wink, wink); when you publish your research in a journal called Game Studies; or when you actually are a professor of game studies, you end up feeling like you know what games do – and what they should do.
That wouldn’t be so bad – it’s business-as-usual for academics, in fact – if game studies didn’t harbor what amounts to a desperate need to lay claim to ownership of game design as well as theory. It turns out that they don’t just want to write articles and grant Ph.D.’s – they want to design our games, too.
Here’s Ian Bogost, in a 2005 article co-authored by several Georgia Tech digital media faculty:
We need to investigate the ways in which games affect and alter people’s perceptions about the world. Central to this process is an understanding of procedural rhetoric – the way that a videogame embodies ideology in its computational structure. By understanding how games embody rhetoric in their rules, we not only gain a critical vantage point on videogame artifacts, but also we can begin to consider how to design games whose primary purpose is to editorialize, teach, and make political statements.
Wilson talks at the end of his rant in GameSetWatch of “getting political.” Ian Bogost is a proponent of “persuasive games.” Both these ideas stem from a facet of game studies that Aarseth addresses a bit later in his 2005 piece:
Inevitably, the only powerful nexus among these diverse approaches then becomes design. Humanists, technologists, and social scientists come to¬gether through a common interest in outstanding design. Game design will have to unite the insights from social science, technology, and art, and so becomes the overruling discipline whereby all the other approaches are measured.
Simply put, game studies’ focus on design is what makes Wilson hate gamers. Gamers who won’t get political, who won’t be persuaded, threaten to throw a wrench in the works of his discipline. Game studies as a discipline, Aarseth says, must seek to overrule those who don’t see the field as a marriage of design, theory and criticism, thereby creating a sort of monolith of game-studies-approved gaming practice. And Wilson tells us that gamers don’t fit the bill as an audience of these efforts.
In the co-authored 2005 Georgia Tech article, one of the authors (presumably Janet Murray, author of one of the earliest examples of gamer-hating game studies criticism, Hamlet on the Holodeck), tries valiantly to hide the problem:
If the Game Production programs rally around the cry “You play games, now learn to make them”; and if the Game Studies programs declare, “You play games, now learn to study them,” then we might respond, “You must make games to study them, and you must study games to make them.”
It would be wonderful if there actually were something like what Murray et al. describe as “game studies programs”: not a discipline in itself, but a true interdisciplinary nexus, looking outward to the gamers around it working at various levels of their individual disciplines. Indeed, such a thing would quite possibly do what we need done for gaming.
Unfortunately, these “game studies programs” don’t actually exist, and what do exist are several programs that take what Murray et al. describe as the “Georgia Tech approach.” They all want to keep design and theory together, the same way Aarseth does in the earlier passage; they all want their students to be game developers; and (presumably without knowing it) they want them to distance themselves from gamers and develop serious games, with the “fun” part left out.
When game studies scholars talk about the paradigm they want to establish for their discipline, they often call unfavorable attention to film studies. That discipline, they say, has failed to unite theory and criticism with production. But what if that so-called failure were remedied? We might well end up with filmmakers who hate moviegoers – not just disregard the commercial system to follow their own instincts, but hate, like Wilson hates gamers. As filmmakers and developers of popular games know, the audience is not the enemy.
Nothing that game studies scholars are doing is inherently wrong, on either the theoretical or design side. Game studies scholars need to be free to explore, to talk about whatever comes into their heads, to start academic journals that attempt to define (and exclude others from) their practice – that is, to do what every other discipline and pseudo-discipline does.
They should be free to teach whatever subjects they choose, to whatever graduate students they can attract to programs like “the Ph.D. in Digital Media.” Likewise, graduates should be free to send articles to journals like Game Studies, and the editorial boards of those journals are free to accept and reject articles as they see fit, giving the impression that this is game studies, and that is not game studies, and the ability to make the distinction means that game studies exists.
On the other hand, they should also be free to design and produce the games they want to produce, some of which might interest actual gamers. Those games should be as persuasive or as serious as they like.
But the effort to force the two sides together – to create and maintain game studies (or digital media studies, or new media studies, or whatever else will get past their deans and boards of trustees) as a discipline – is propagating the mindset that leads to rants like Wilson’s. And those rants give ammunition to those who want to tell gamers to “put down their controllers and grow up.” These scholars are rejecting a task that we gamers, whether we’re scholars ourselves or not, should demand that they undertake. The task is leading us to the promised land of mainstream culture, and right now game studies is lost in the desert.
Roger Travis is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut. He blogs about the interference of Classics and gaming at livingepic.blogspot.com. In Spring 2009, Roger will offer an online course on videogames as a reawakening of Homeric epic.