On Finnish games research, thoughts from DiGRA Nordic 2012

“A Decade of Nordic Game Studies”, the closing panel of DiGRA Nordic 2012 was cut short a bit, so I thought I’d blog some thoughts that had not so much room there.

Raine Koskimaa, the chair of panel presented us, the Nordic representatives, with the question of “what had been the main trend in game studies, as seen from your own perspective”. Another perspective to and challenge for the panel was presented by Espen Aarseth’s preceding keynote, “Playing the Field: Game Studies 1982 – 2042”, which (among many other things) asked whether there had been any real, solid contribution of game studies so far that would stand the test of time. Espen’s vision for the future included three main alternative directions, the “Massive Multiplayer” (where large teams would join forces, e.g. in school of architecture style), “Battlefield” model where there would be very little collaboration and much conflict, and thirdly, “Game Over” model, where game studies had proved to be just a fad, and had died away.

First, to look into the history of game studies in Finland: it is obvious that the history of scholarship related to games and play is long, and can be retraced back to the work of Yrjö Hirn from 1916 (see Olli Sotamaa’s Finnish language article about this in the Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies: http://www.pelitutkimus.fi/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/ptvk2009-09.pdf). There has been multiple starts, breaks in the tradition of scholarship and then re-starts, as seems to be the situation also internationally (cf. Jesper Juul’s review of “The Study of Games” in the first issue of Game Studies: http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-review/). It appears that folkloristics, educational research and developmental psychology have dealt with some aspects of play with most consistent track history in Finland. The contemporary phase of digital game studies can be traced back to the late 1980s when hypermedia and hypertext arrived to the agenda of humanities and literary studies in particular, and more substantially during the 1990s when computer and video games and digital culture became a more sustained interest of scholarship. In early 2000s the first academic positions dedicated to the study of games emerged and e.g. the Game Research Lab in the University of Tampere was established in 2002 when we organised the Computer Games and Digital Cultures conference in Tampere. DiGRA was discussed at the time and formally established in early 2003.

One can evaluate the role and character of Finnish game studies from multiple perspectives, and it is clear that at least in numerical terms the volume of game studies has increased during the years. There is no bibliography or statistical record of game studies in Finland, but looking at the situation in Tampere Game Research Lab, I can see the ebb and flow of dozens of games related, externally funded research projects (I think the total figure 35 today), where the volume rises up for a two or three of busy years, then goes down, only to be followed by some busy years again, bit later. (You can see the effect of having only one professor here: it is very hard to prepare new research projects while you are completely engaged with the on-going ones, and research staff cannot continue directly from one project to another – there will be breaks that affect the continuity.)

The contemporary game research in Finland has been highly interdisciplinary, rooted in humanities, social sciences, design research as well as in e.g. economics, computer sciences, information studies as well as in many other disciplines and research fields. One could also say that it has become rather innovative of necessity: there has been almost no research funding available to look into the established, popular forms of computer games, but it has been possible to study emerging forms such as location based mobile multiplayer games, or pervasive games in general. There has also been more funding for applied research where games and play are integrated into some practically oriented implementation, rather than for basic research that would build the conceptual and theoretical basis for game studies. There are nevertheless good examples of how one can “smuggle into” applied project research questions and approaches that lead to important “foundational” innovations in conceptual, theoretical or methodological level. Personal research grants for PhD projects have also started to make it easier to stay focused with a certain topic, approach and theoretical line of thinking for a few years at least, while completing one’s PhD in game studies.

Thus, my candidates for the terms that characterise the past decade of game studies in Finland would be ‘divergence’ and ‘convergence’: the range of interests has spread from the initial, ‘core’ concerns of what a ‘game’ is or what constitutes player experience, to work that has experimented and interpreted the workings of completely new forms of games, as well as aspects of contemporary society, culture and daily life that can be characterised as ‘ludic’ or playful. But while this expansion has been on-going, there has been also steady stream of activity that has materialised through journal and conference papers, textbooks, yearbooks, anthologies and in other forums, which has also risen the awareness about key ontological, epistemological and methodological concerns that relate to games and play. In Espen’s keynote there was a suggestion (or question) that maybe we have not made any progress in game studies at all, and I think that would be an unfair assessment. There is certainly an element in game studies that is not cumulative, particularly as there are continuous changes and developments in the technical, social, cultural and commercial forms that games take from year to year. We need new research as new phenomena emerges. But the core fundamentals of games and play have also some rather stable characteristics that make the work carried out decades ago still relevant (Huizinga, Caillois – Espen mentioned Jacques Ehrmann’s article “Homo Ludens Revisited” from 1968, and there are many other works in cultural anthropology, literary and art theory, history, psychology and sociology that are also several decades old and yet still are worth reading and becoming inspired while doing research with games and play). What are the “classic” works of Finnish game studies, it is perhaps still too early to assess.

The game scholars from Finland have been active in opening new initiatives, participating in international forums and my guess is that the work carried out in this field has made an effect in several important discussions that cut through game studies, even while it is difficult to assess using “impact factor” tools used in other fields. The extensive interdisciplinarity of game studies still makes it too easy to miss out important, highly relevant publications that are published in venues that remain hidden behind disciplinary divides. We need more work in research bibliographies, open access repositories and databases that make it possible to use several different keywords to hunt for earlier publications in selected themes. Current situation is worrisome in game studies; even the bibliography of DigiPlay Initiative was closed down some time ago, even while it is now possible to access this data using Zotero (see https://www.zotero.org/groups/digiplay). Together with Joost Raessens and René Glas we made proposal to DiGRA for initiating a working group on an international database/wiki for research oriented game studies courses and degree programs (and professors/teachers), so that both us, members of the faculty, as well as students, could find relevant academic educational activities and expertise, and promote closer international collaboration.

Thus, from the three alternative future directions that Espen offered us, I am a firm believer in the “Massive Multiplayer” one, and I think that the progress we have made with game studies in Finland, as well as internationally, suggests that this is the future where we are indeed moving towards. Yet, the weak institutional status and the thinly scattered resources make it clear that we need more structure and support in this field to meet our challenges. DiGRA can play a key role in this development in the future, but we all need also to be active in the “grassroots level”. Closer collaboration with programs that train game industry professionals is also an important direction to consider, since it is clear that there are mutual benefits that can be gained through putting “theory” and “practice” into contact in different ways. It is also clear that there is more need for people who understand game studies and work in media or game industry than there is for professors or academic researchers. One can look e.g. the structures in communication studies and think about the relation between vocational education in professional journalism and media/communication research – a relationship that of course has also its tensions and challenges, but that has nevertheless has lead into a much clearly identifiable institutional character than the combination of game studies and game development education has in the university system today.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the Tampere University, Finland. Occasional photographer and gardener.

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