DiGRA Distinguished Scholar

I am proud to be among the the inaugural group of DiGRA Distinguished Scholars, as recently  appointed by the DiGRA executive board:

Ian Bogost
Mia Consalvo
Suzanne DeCastell
Jussi Holopainen
Jesper Juul
Aphra Kerr
Tanya Krzywinska
Jonas Linderoth
Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Frans Mäyrä
Annika Waern
Jose Zagal

There are similar recognitions that established scholarly associations award in their fields, and I am happy to see game studies also now having this kind of instrument for strengthening the community. – Thank you, everyone, the nomination is a great honour!

DiGRA 2016: joint DiGRA/FDG conference

This actually makes great sense: “For the first time, the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) and the Foundation of Digital Games (FDG) will partner in an unprecedented gathering of games researchers. We invite researchers and educators within game research, broadly construed, to submit their work.” More at: http://www.digra.org/145807/#more-145807

Verkkolähetys: Professoriliiton seminaari

Tänään Kansallismuseon auditoriossa on klo 13 alkaen Professoriliiton syysseminaari “Tutkimusta kaikkien hyödyksi”. Itse puhun siitä miten perustutkimus kohtaa innovaatiot pelitutkimuksessa. Seminaaria voi seurata ilmaiseksi verkkolähetyksenä osoitteesta: http://video.helsinki.fi/Arkisto/flash.php?id=20485. Seminaarin kutsu ja ohjelma ovat täällä: http://www.professoriliitto.fi/@Bin/412110/Professoriliitto_Syysseminaari_webversion.pdf.

UTAgamelab has new website!

The website of University of Tampere Game Research Lab has been redesigned, with updated information about our research projects, research staff, the university degree education we provide, plus with information about seminars, conferences, public talks and other activities that we engage in. Check them out at: http://gameresearchlab.uta.fi.

Panel: From Game Studies to Studies of Play in Society

The first day of DiGRA 2015 conference featured panel titled “From Game Studies to Studies of Play in Society”, which included Sebastian Deterding, Mia Consalvo, Joost Raessens, Seth Giddings, Torill Elvira Mortensen, Kristine Jørgensen and myself as speakers (Sybille Lammes unfortunately could not make it; check out the panel position paper here: DiGRA 2015 panel paper). The immediate incentive for me to start planning this panel was related to the stimulus of our ‘Ludification and the Emergence of Playful Culture’ research project (Academy of Finland, 2014-2018). The scope and conclusions drawn from the discussion, however, point into several directions, now only those related to the opportunities and challenges provided by ‘ludification’ or ‘gamification’ to game studies. In my introduction and outline of panel agenda I was talking about how game studies had been changing over the recent years, with possible transfers of focus in the subject matters, methodologies, theory frameworks as well as in the institutional placement and allegiances of the work carried out in this field. I shortly provided some suggestions on how such developments had featured in the expanding scope of work carried out in the University of Tampere Game Research Lab, and then put forward the questions: Is research of games and play now becoming more relevant for other fields of learning? And on the other hand: Are game studies in danger of losing its distinctiveness in this process? I have no room to fully capture insightful position statements of the distinguished panellists, nor the ensuing lively discussion, but here are some quick notes:

  • Sebastian Deterding moved to position game studies in the context of convergence culture, comparing the situation with games to that of television (and television studies), where also the “classic television” had been recontextualized and complicated by the emergence of “crowdsourced YouTube series television” and similar phenomena. He urged game studies to move away from seeking some “eternal essence” of gameness to research of more granular units, putting more emphasis on particular cultural forms and conditions, and relying on empirical studies.
  • Mia Consalvo eloquently outlined the “choice fatigue” that is facing students (and possibly also scholars) who are moving to the (expanded, emphatically complex) field of digital games. She also talked about the agency and identity of people working on game studies: if I only play ‘peek-a-boo’ with my baby, am I allowed to have a voice in studies, or research, of this field?
  • Joost Raessens was questioning the implicit narrative suggested by the title of panel: we are not really moving from studies of games to studies of play, because those two have been inseparably linked and integrated from the very beginning of game studies (Joost was also quickly highlighting some lines of this thought running from Heraclitus, Schiller, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Marcuse, Deleuze and Derrida – to Sutton-Smith, Zimmerman and Sicart). Himself working on the ludification of culture, he saw the study of play element in culture at the centre of game studies project, explaining how Huizinga’s broad-ranging thought in Homo Ludens still resonates strongly within game studies community. Pointing towards the recent book Playful Identities, Joost concluded by suggesting how ‘ludic identity’ could be articulated and analysed from at least three key perspectives. From ontological concepts we should move to more epistemological approaches.
  • Seth Giddings was putting forward a beautifully written (and read) argument on how the play of animals and children can not be fundamentally separated, and what kind of consequences it has on including ecological and ethological approaches to the repertoire of this field.
  • Torill Elvira Mortensen took issue with ‘dark play’, discussing the internal conflicts and frustrations of (unemployed) youth – something that can perhaps been positioned at the background of the hatred and aggression that has recently exploded to the forefront of digital “gamer” cultures. Games and play can easily be utilized as a sort of “disarming rhetoric”, where “boys will be boys”, “it is just play” or “it is just trolling” can be used to justify all kinds of acts of violence and dominance. Torill reminded us that play and games, while ancient, are not “natural” or beyond critique, and that the entire field is deeply embedded in various (hegemonic) power structures.
  • Kristine Jørgensen kind of summarised the entire panel by at first outlining the current situation, where game studies is highly relevant for surrounding culture and society, with play infusing many different aspects and dimensions of culture and society. Player demographics are currently emphatically diverse, players hold high profile as consumers, paralleled by highly visible roles that game industry holds in (popular-cultural) economics, and game forms as a medium of expression. But such notable position also comes with a price: there are increasing pressures from within and outside of academia to how games and play should be approached – or exploited. Game studies are being challenged by other fields and disciplines that also want to include games and play into their agenda, and the distinctiveness of game studies is indeed under increasing pressure to dissolve, or disappear.
  • In the ensuing discussion, the “pyrrhic victory of game studies” (Sebastian) was debated: had game studies made itself ‘unnecessary’ in the process of becoming the highly successful ‘science of everything’ through the expanding range of gameful, playful and otherwise play-related approaches and expansions of its research field? Some, like Joost celebrated the success and potential of game studies to bring together and build bridges between theoretical and practical, humanistic, social-scientific and design research work. Sebastian suggested that the best “survival strategy” for game studies would be to adopt design science approach at its core, since that would be the best way of arguing for its sustained societal impact and relevance. From the audience, Annika Waern commented that HCI (human-computer interaction) research field is an example of how this already has been attempted for more than two decades, without resounding success – even while design practitioners are indeed frequenting HCI conferences, more than game designers would be participating in DiGRA or other game studies’ scholarly events. Annika saw that game studies academics are much stronger currently in analytical, theoretical work on foundational issues of games and play research, and there is also the danger of becoming subservient to industry (with its typically more practical, and short-to-medium-term interests), if design science would be emphatically set as the sole, dominant organising principle of game studies.
  • Other key themes in discussion was the one thread that related to the “built-in anti-essentialism” in studies of games and play: the academics in this field are typically emphatically suspicious of essentializing views, or fixed definitions of their subjects of study – it was suggested that this is rooted in the fast change in new media as the context of this field, and on the other hand, on “new and innovative”, the next thing, always being more inviting to these academics (us) than the questionable idea of stopping at any kind of ‘fixed’ or stabilizing identity. On the other hand, Joost provided the example of gender studies, where it had been recognised that “strategic essentialism” might be necessary to maintain some kind of ‘core’ of disciplinary identity for gender studies, while analyses and awareness of gender studies issues has certainly also expanded and transformed work carried out in multiple other disciplines. Similarly, “strategic essentialism” of maintaining the core of game studies (as in conceptual, theoretical, methodological and pragmatic dimensions of game studies as academic, institutionally organised and recognised field), in addition to having interdisciplinary collaborations, explorations and experimentations fruitfully altering and evolving games, play and related research and development practices. (This is something that I actually discussed in my “Getting into the Game: Doing Multi-Disciplinary Game Studies” chapter, in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, Perron & Wolf, eds., 2009.)
  • Other take-aways from this stimulating session included e.g. Sebastian’s suggestion that the optimal game scholar is “T-shaped”: she is capable of maintaining wide-ranging collaborations and discussions on topics that cross disciplinary boundaries, while having also “in-depth” knowledge and academic capabilities in some area of specialization.

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. [http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/paper_146.pdf])

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: