Game Studies: a polyphonic discipline?

Critical Evaluation of Game Studies: Bart Simon
Critical Evaluation of Game Studies: Bart Simon

The Critical Evaluation of Game Studies seminar closed today, leaving a full house of tired but intellectually stimulated games scholars to debate and reflect on the outcomes and overall synthesis of the varied papers and discussions. One of the threads of the discussion concerned the identity and character of Game Studies (or “game studies”, or: games research? Or: ludology, even?) In his keynote, Espen Aarseth talked about Game Studies as a field, and argued (with explicit comment against my earlier published views) that a “discipline” is something that he particularly does not want to see Game Studies developing into.

This particular, anti-disciplinary view can in a way be grounded on the existing polyphony in this field: there has not emerged any single, unified school of thought that would encompass everything that is going around games and play in academia. On the other hand, one could also – again following Espen – argue that a discipline that produces its own undergraduates as well as postgraduates would need a more solid methodological basis, and also more established work market to guarantee the employment of such “native graduates”. (Sebastian Deterding had an interesting analysis and proposal in his paper, suggesting that since there are not much guarantees of employment, or not so many well-established publication venues in the “core” areas of Game Studies, people are escaping back to more established academic fields, such as HCI or Communication Studies, which have already opened up for games related research, and provide more institutional work opportunities – and that Game Studies should merge with Design Research so that it would have better opportunities for survival.) Or, one could follow Bart Simon who in his speech talked about the “unseriousness” inherent in games and play as an object of study, and go against the instrumentalization and reification of disciplinary knowledge by principle.

While I see the point of all these, well-grounded arguments, I just want to emphasize again that Game Studies needs both dimensions and movements: both the elements that pull people towards each other and focus at organizing the knowledge production and educational activities in Game Studies into some, hopefully rather unified wholes, as well as more interdisciplinary elements that fertilize and stimulate the growth of new approaches and innovations – both within Game Studies, as well as in other fields of learning. While there is enough anarchist in most game scholars today to make us stand up and go against any attempt at governance or “central control” in this daring, iconoclastic intellectual project that has been set into motion, it is also important, I think, to carry enough responsibility to aim at positive conditions for such project, and sometimes this will also require setting up “disciplinary versions” of the fast-moving research field, so that it can engage with various academic institutions and neighbouring disciplines at even terms. While such “freeze frame” simplifications of the field probably always do some violence to the plurality, coverage and dynamism of Game Studies, they are probably necessary illusions that we also need. Textbooks, lectures and articles are all good places to construct such, identity creating moments of Game Studies, as well as for deconstructing and questioning them. After the seminar, I think that the deconstructionist momentum is currently stronger than the constructivist one, but it just may be my impression.

In any case, I came out of the seminar invigorated and energized, believing even more that before to the need and enormous potential Game Studies has to offer, not only to academia, but also to the surrounding society. If we do not try to fit together and negotiate the multiple aspects that complicate the superficial, commonplace perceptions of what games are, or what game playing means, who is going to do that? Also, I do not think that the other academic disciplines that I know about are that much more unified, or less polyphonic than Game Studies is, actually. As years and decades go past, academics tend to question the truths of their fields from multiple angles, and come up with dozens of different, mutually competing and incompatible theories and approaches into their fields of inquiry. And that is a very good thing. Long live Game Studies, one and many!

Author: frans

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