Special: Paging Dr. Mario.
Like it or not, games studies have become a part of the academic world. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers a degree in Digital Media
with course titles like ?Interactive Fiction? and ?Advanced Issues in Interactive Narrative.? At the University of Central Florida, students can also follow a Masters' program in Digital Media, with a specialized track in Interactive Entertainment
. And the IT University of Copenhagen hosts the Center for Computer Games Research
, which supports the research of some of the most recognizable and influential names in the field.
Still, anyone who's tried to bring video games into the university classroom in the last decade or two has almost certainly met with some resistance. On one side are the traditional academics, the ones who study Joyce and Dante all their lives, and they are all too ready to shrug off gaming as another passing pop culture fad. On the other hand are the gamers themselves, whose territorial desire to protect their hobby puts them on the defensive at the mere suggestion of putting games into the hands of anyone but the player. ?It's just a game,? they say. ?Why do you want to read so much into it?? The good news is that enthusiasts who know that they aren't ?just games? are in good company. Here is a selection of books and resources to help you get started.
A decade or two ago, most popular games writing either stroked players' love of games or stoked parents' fears with titles like The Giant Book of Computer Games
(1985) and ?Video Arcades, Youth, and Trouble? (in Youth and Society 1984). Looking back at that time, however, one book stands out among the alarmism and fluff: David Sudnow's Pilgrim in the Microworld
(1983). Not an academic study by any means, Pilgrim
is an extremely detailed account of the author's obsession with the game Breakout
on the Atari 2600. Anyone who remembers the classic game will enjoy following Sudnow on his quest for the perfect, one-ball game. He plays and examines the game for hours that turn into days, weeks and months, and nothing escapes his scrutiny. Pages of notes and diagrams line his floor as he studies the movement of the ball, the segmentation of the on-screen paddle, and the sensitivity of the dial controller. Finally, in search of the ideal strategy Sudnow goes to Atari and meets with the game's programmers, itself a reminder of a different time in gaming. What are the chances that a player would be let into the Atari building today simply because she wanted some tips for Neverwinter Nights 2
This meticulous report of a concert pianist turned hard-core gamer reads like an engaging autobiography, but the author's close contact with this early game leads him to interesting insights on the state of early gaming: ?the computer didn't get tired, or lazy, wasn't self-modifying except in ways you could thoroughly learn. All worked out, programmed, set up in detail to function in a certain fashion. And that's not an opponent, nor a game, not by any stretch of the imagination.? He goes on to describe this sort of game ?an object with fixed properties? not unlike his piano. The thrill is in learning the rules that comprise its system and then navigating through them on the way to the perfect game. Even though this anecdotal study of one gamer and one game hints at topics that will occupy gamers, designers and scholars to this day, it it's another ten to fifteen years before another book will take such a close look at what games are and can be.
Shoulders of Giants
Like any college curriculum, game studies has its core texts, the ones everyone has read and referenced, even if only to bash them on the road to presenting their own, latest and greatest ideas. Books like Espen Aarseth's Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic Literature
(1997) and Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theatre
(1991) have inspired anyone interested in reading about the possibilities of gaming. Theatre
applies dramatic techniques to human-computer interactions in the hopes of making the latter more fluid and engaging. Cybertext
, meanwhile, takes a heavily theoretical and philosophical approach to all sorts of interactive texts, citing people like Italo Calvino, Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.
One of these early greats was Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck
(1997), the book that most newcomers to games studies will likely want to start with due to its readability and the force of its ideas. Although some might find her focus on MUDs a bit dated today, her analysis of concepts like immersion and agency remain valid and thought-provoking. Her detailed catalogue of various types of interactive environments?ELIZA, Zork, Afternoon, and many more?is an eye-opening look at the new media of the nineties. Anyone who has complained about bad AI in today's gaming scene will be interested in the stories of language parsers, chatterbots and PARRY, an AI able to fool experts in blind Turing tests into thinking it was human.
Murray's most resonant point?procedural authorship?hasn't yet been widely realized. It suggests that designers write general rules for their an interactive situation rather than script the specifics of a scene, so that a character in a given situation has a collection of possible actions to call upon in any given situation. These actions may combine in multiple ways, and give rise to unexpected, emergent behaviors. Simply put, emergence states that deceptively complex behaviors can be the result of a few simple rules. Designers can use emergence to make their AI seem more realistic and unpredictable. It's the concept behind the game that ?takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.? It suggests applying systems thinking to games, rather than simply looking at them as another form of linear narrative.
Ludology Versus Narratology?
The next generation of games studies followed closely on the heels of these early landmark studies and brought a variety of perspectives to the field. 1998 saw From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games
, and in 2001, Mark Wolf published The Medium of the Video Game
. Some of these works used a perspective of gender studies or cultural studies, or, in the case of Barry Atkins's More than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form
, leaned heavily on literary studies. According to some, the varied backgrounds of these scholars dominated their work and risked burying games studies in established fields. Games would lose what makes them unique if they were forced into these stodgy and ill-fitting academic molds.
An early response appeared on-line, in the form of several websites devoted to looking at games on their own terms. Run by Gonzalo Frasca since 2001, Ludology.org
publishes articles, book reviews and game-related items. Some of Frasca's articles include ?Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means of Critical Thinking and Debate,? and ?Ephemeral Games: Is it Barbaric to Design Games after Auschwitz?? He also links to some games he has worked on, and September 12th
is a standout there. Game Studies
is an on-line journal created to ?explore the rich cultural genre of games; to give scholars a peer-reviewed forum for their ideas and theories; to provide an academic channel for the ongoing discussions on games and gaming.? And other sites, such as Lars Konzack's blog Ludologica
, offer up-to-date information about the field.
Several of the latest books in games studies have positioned themselves far from the traditional academic categories, asserting that they would examine games as a category unto themselves and coining the term ?ludology? to describe this new ?study of the game.? Jesper Juul's book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds
(2005) certainly falls into this category with its assumption that the rules in a game represent a reality that the player can manipulate and in which she can act on other game elements. It's almost as if the reality of the game is packaged in the fictional wrapper that is its setting: WWII battlefield, anime-style fighting ring, cyberpunk dystopia, etc etc.
Another startling book that takes games at face value is Ken S. McAllister's Game Work: Language, Power and Computer Game Culture
(2004). McAllister could never entertain the notion that videogames are ?just games,? in fact, a primary facet of his vision of the ?work? of games is that of instruction: games are always involved in training and transforming the player in some way. In particular, he examines the rhetoric of games: designers' rhetoric, newsgroup discourse, marketing elements, even the rhetoric of games reviewers. Each of these can be considered part of the ?grammar? of gamework, and all are involved in communicating with and conditioning the player in some way. It's a provocative idea, but, unfortunately, the reader often has to wade through McAllister's jargon: ?Ineluctable rhetorical events articulate the points in the dialectic in which the conversation is closed and the ideology?at whatever level?has been established.?
Textbooks and Beyond
Of course there are many more studies of games available beyond what's mentioned in this article. For instance, anthologies like the Handbook of Computer Game Studies
(Raessens and Goldstein 2005) and First-Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game
(Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan 2004) seem made for the classroom in that they collect familiar articles from some of the best-known names in the field. And Rules of Play
(Salen and Zimmerman 2003) can only be described as a textbook: it's divided into units (among them ?Core Concepts? and ?Rules?) while defining basic terms, presenting test cases, and offering extra readings and references. This is another great book for the beginner, if not only for the encyclopedic knowledge it presents then for the great bibliography. You'll find enough resources in its nearly 700 pages to keep you reading for a long time. And in the end, that's what really counts: continued research, continued experimentation, and continued curiosity. No matter what the current state of games criticism, there will always be a new development tomorrow and the day after that...