Theory vs. Craft in Computer Game Studies

Theory vs. Craft in Computer Game StudiesJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

In a comment attached to my blog entry on The Muse of the Videogame, Eyejinx makes an excellent point, an excerpt from which is below:

Unless and until those involved in game studies seriously work with the development process (and perhaps the developers themselves), any proposals for how to go about making games remain in the realm of theory.

In the meantime, as a nascent field of study, those involved in game studies should, perhaps, strive to identify where their work falls in the criticism/craft divide.

I’d agree that theorists often make impractical suggestions, but choosing a starting point that privileges production and development over theory is naturally going to find a theoretical piece lacking. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — academics do write mostly for each other, and specialists in any field tend to develop an elite language, partly out of necessity, but partly as a social signal. (And if you think I’m only talking about the ivory towers, don’t forget the 1337 h4xx0r culture.)

Most people who aren’t professional athletes have a favorite team; most people who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag have some idea of who their favorite actors are, and can recognize and be moved by a good performance. On the other end of the scale, theorists may call for the production of certain texts that don’t exist, but that would need to exist in order for them to fully explicate their theories… thus, in literature, we have a tradition of visionary authors writing traditional books about imaginary books (Borges and “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Stephenson and “The Diamond Age,” even Douglas Adams and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”).

People who study the history of the American Revolution aren’t necessarily trying to write a how to manual for future revolutionaries… Likewise, if I were to write a paper examining the development of the cave setting in computer games, or the development of inventory-based puzzles, or the rise and fall of text adventures, I wouldn’t feel any obligation whatsoever to tell my readers what to do in order to produce these games.

On another note, the best practitioners aren’t automatically the best teachers, so I wouldn’t be so hasty to elide the difference between teachers of the craft and practitioners of the craft. Obviously theorists need stuff about which to theorize, but their discourse does not necessarily need to be focused towards teaching other people how to create more of the kind of thing that they study… a theorist might instead focus entirely on the effect a particular work had on its surroundings, and if the article or book in question did a good job with that, I certainly wouldn’t fault it for not overtly addressing ways to help game development companies make more money.

Plato wrestled with similar issues — his “Ion” is a dialogue between Socrates and a “rhapsode,” a sort of actor/orator/composer who insists that, because he tells good stories about generals, he’d make a better general than the professional soldiers. (We are meant to laugh at this overextension — after all, since Plato isn’t a professional rhapsode, so what does he know about what a rhapsode would say? At the same time I think it’s meant to be satire at the expense of the contemporary military leadership.)

It’s a simple truth nowadays that among the people whose lives are being affected by computer games include many who aren’t computer programmers, who have never taken a course in computer programming, and who aren’t very good at the kind of logical, iterative, procedural creativity that programming requires. Having said all that, I do introduce my students to Inform (the most popular language for creating text adventures), in order to get them to appreciate the effort that goes into creating, beta-testing, and perfecting a computer game.

While the computer game industry is, at bottom, driven by money, what might be called the “theory industry” is stacked with people who are very intelligent, who have been trained their whole career to think in abstract and theoretical terms, and who are completely mystified by things that computer gaming designers take for granted. These non-programmers and non-designers are the ones who hired me, the ones who sign up to take my classes, and the ones who decide whether to publish the articles I write or the books I propose, and they’re an important part of the audience for all the game study scholarship that’s coming out.

I was recently told by a theatre history specialist that, although my background is English lit, my book on American Drama from 1920-1950 was worth recommending as a theatre history text. Art history and art practitioners, mathematicians and math teachers, politicians and speech writers, creative writers and copy editors… The intellectual life is full of uneasy pairings.

It’s because of the existence of literary criticism as a profession that people can major in English literature (which amounts to reading novels, poems, and plays, and talking about and writing about them). It’s because of the existence of film criticism as a profession that people can major in film studies (which amounts to watching movies, and talking and writing about them). And because the students are lining up to take these courses, schools can fund “artist in residence” programs, where established authors or filmmakers can do their thing, free (for a while, at least) from the pressures of producing something that will make money. If literature and film programs limited their focus to doing nothing but producing the next generation of creative writers or filmmakers, these programs wouldn’t have nearly the cultural capital that they do; in the market economy, producers need consumers, and educated, critical consumers are probably better for the long-term health of a genre. (I’ll save the elitism/populism debate for another day!)