The Critical Study of Computer Games: A Brief Introduction

The Critical Study of Computer Games: A Brief IntroductionJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Part of: Princeton
Video Game Conference
reflections.

While I mostly wrote those conference reflections for the benefit of game theorists who weren’t able to attend the conference, if you’re new to the subject, you might appreciate a general introduction.

Over the past few years, a very exciting movement in Europe (and particulary in Scandinavia) has been carving out a new field of game studies; it looks like the name “ludology” is going to stick (ludus being Latin for “game”).

The mainstream press has covered this trend with bemusement (“Off to College to Study… Videogames?“), but the general thrust of the article is usually something along the lines that computer games are now too deeply embedded in our culture to ignore.

The ludologists reject the idea that games are primarily a kind of variable storytelling, a kind of interactive movie, a kind of educational role-playing, an occasion for pathology, etc. Instead, games are games — objects in their own right, with an aesthetics, a rhetoric, a cultural history, and a discourse of their own (so far as it has been shaped right now).

I don’t intend the following to be definitive, or limiting. I’m just doing my best to describe what I see, in a framework that my humanities colleagues and students will be able to understand.

Of course, I wouldn’t say ludology necessarily denies that the storyline or cinematic elements of a game might be part of its value. A great story or great visuals is not enough to make a game successful; in fact, plenty of games with no narrative content, blocky graphics and horrid bleepy sound, and which seem to have no point, are nonetheless fun (at least, to the people who play them). In order to get at that core — what makes a game worth playing — a theory of computer games has to get really geeky, drawing on the mathematic principles of what might be called classical game theory , which basically atomizes games into abstract principles such as risk, payoff, strategy, objectives, agency, and equilibrium. Gonzalo Frasca boils all this down to one concept: rules. These are foreign concepts to narratologists (who want to think in terms of stories, or potential storeis), film theorists (who concentrate on the visual grammar that is used to represent the game state), psychologists and sociologists (who are concerned with what games do to us when we play them), though they are probably very familiar to business people (who want to know the secret formula for an addictive game, so they can make it just hard enough to be a challenge, but not hard enough that people don’t think it’s worth the money).

Whew.

While my literary background and my chosen subfield within games (interactive fiction) would seem to naturally predispose me towards narrative, I think my work with text games shows me just how poorly the vocabulary of fiction applies to other types of games (such as simulations or game-like social spaces, where the narrative content, such as it is, is mostly improvised by players interacting a shared virtual space).