Working with the Disciplinarity in Game Studies


Summer School, Utrecht

The Summer School of Games and Play Research kicked off in Monday in Utrecht, where a large number of games scholars and students had gathered for two weeks of intensive discussions and presentations. One of the key challenges for setting up this kind of event for this field is related to its aims, and how the Summer School will address the wide reach of different branches of science and scholarship that is somehow related to games and play — should there be, e.g. a course on mathematical Game Theory, or something about current trends in programming in Game Development?

The planning group of the Summer School did its own decisions on how to profile the School, aiming to include those dimensions that relate to humanities, human sciences and design research in particular. Thus, there were sessions for example on the Psychology in Game and Play Research, as well as humanities and design oriented sessions, but Computer Science as well as the Economics, Law, and many other interesting disciplines where games and play are today researched were left off-focus at this time.

Frans Mäyrä, presenting the Utrecht keynote
Frans Mäyrä, presenting the Utrecht keynote

In my opening keynote I tried to address the multiplicity of origins, the evolution, and search for identity in Game Studies from multiple angles. As also the data from the games researcher survey I presented proves, this field is highly multi- and interdisciplinary: there are scholars coming from great many different degree programs and disciplinary backgrounds, they collaborate often closely with scholars coming from other fields, and it is also very common to change from one discipline to another. As a field, Game Studies is highly dynamic, and attracts people from all sides of academia. Yet, these people also rather strongly self-identify as a somewhat coherent group: they feel that they are indeed “(digital) games researchers”, and overwhelming majority of respondents of that survey also reported of being “gamers” themselves. (For full details, see: Mäyrä, Frans, Jan Van Looy & Thorsten Quandt (2013) “Disciplinary Identity of Game Scholars: An Outline”. Proceedings of DiGRA 2013. Atlanta: Georgia Tech & DiGRA. [])

However, to counterbalance the polyphony of different voices and discourses addressing games and play today, also certain disciplinary elements are needed. The academic evaluation, both at the level of individual publications, as well as when job positions are being filled, requires that there are ways to recognise those who are best qualified to comment on the quality of research as Game Studies, and not judge it according to criteria of some other field. This is somewhat tricky thing, of course, and subject of negotiation every time such evaluation work is carried out. Is this something that should be evaluated as humanities oriented Game Studies — or as something with more Social Sciences focus? Is the position filled mainly so that there will be solid conceptual analyst or theorist in the faculty, or for finding someone who can act as a bridge builder between academia and games industry, for example?

I would say that today, like more than a decade ago when the question of disciplinarity of Game Studies was emphatically taken up, there is as much need for “disciplinary work” in the field as ever: there is need for conceptual clarity, continuity and cumulative understanding of key dimensions of games and play research, and also need for standards and reference texts that are necessary milestones in degree programs. However, I would not want to see Game Studies to calcify according any single “dogma” or “right way” of carrying out academic work. And it need not — any disciplinary field with an identity and a living community of scholars is based on constant renegotiation of what “we are”, what this discipline actually is, and what are its key focus areas. It might help to think about organism like amoeba: it has boundaries, it has “inside” and “outside”, but those boundaries are constantly in the move, and adapt to the chancing environment, sometimes engulfin some new element within itself, sometimes possibly even dividing into several new organisms (or: maybe amoeba do not do that? I am more likely thinking of bacteria here…)

There are practical concerns in Game Studies like in any other field in contemporary academia, as the university system is undergoing restructuring and many fields of learning need to provide good reasons for its existence and functions in a society. Game Studies certainly serves important scholarly functions, by addressing phenomena of major significance in the “Ludic Society” of today and tomorrow. The understanding of games, their history, genres, ways of how such dynamic systems operate, their design principles and how they are experienced by different kinds of people — all such things are needed, not only by academic researchers in this field, but also increasingly by experts who want to understand the changes in society, culture, learning, commerce, social interaction, etc. Thus, my claim: “in the future, every discipline needs to be a Game Studies discipline”. On the other hand, it is not enough to have some minor elements related to digital media, online communication and games scattered in several, disconnected degree programs in various parts of academia. There is also need for a “core discipline”, and an increasing (even if still rather modest) need for graduates that can be the experts who provide the reference work and theoretical and practical foundation of games and play research, so that it can then be applied in many other fields as well.

The program of Summer School was built to reflect this kind of principles of multiplicity and unity: the morning keynotes provided coherent arguments and perspectives into what games and play research is, or should be. The afternoons start with disciplinary seminars, where people coming and working within somewhat shared academic frameworks can develop their joint responses and interpretations of those same themes, and to develop their distinctive own agendas. The final element in the program are the more experimental, interdisciplinary workshops and the game jam, designed to bring together people from multiple sides of the research field, and to catalyse new ideas, creative concepts, and processes.

Unfortunately my busy schedules forced me to leave the Summer School early, but I wish everyone very fruitful and stimulating days in Utrecht, and look forward to the results, conclusions and any feedback that will be coming from it. Long live Game Studies – One, and Many!

You can find my keynote slides embedded below:

Author: frans

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