Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Games Studies: to theorise or not to theorise?

I spent a bit of yesterday morning reading a few articles and blog posts regarding the relevance and importance of academic courses into things like Game Studies with a bit of an arched eyebrow. It all started when one of my RSS feed readers (I have one for personal interests and one setup to specifically cater for the stories I talk about on this blog) picked up a story from the game site, The Escapist, by a certain Roger Travis. I suggest you take a look at it if you have ever felt that that studying courses in the arts and humanities is a complete waste of time (as seems to be inferred from the article).

Travis is an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut, so I presume his inference that I hinted at above was part of a specific stratagem to stimulate debate [note: I think this was actually a point picked up on in the comments section and may not be Travis' position at all]. Either way, debate it did stir, especially as he targeted a few well known figures in the emergent Game Studies fields (people like Juul, Aarseth, Murray, Bogost and Wilson).

His main bone of contention seemed to be that Game Studies, as taught on undergraduate degree programmes, is of little use to anybody. Actually another major gripe of his seems to be the attitude academics take to game players, but I might go into that in a later post if I can find the time. He claims,
'The problem with game studies ... is that the effort to create and maintain the discipline is keeping gaming from winning the respect it deserves. Against all appearances, scholars are pursuing game studies to the detriment of gamer culture.'
Needless to say, I'm not exactly convinced by this line of argument, given that it seems incredibly reductive. Also, I am aware that Travis was writing a short polemical piece intending to cause debate, which it certainly did. Ian Bogost replied to the piece via his own website and soon Travis entered into a dialogue which seemed much less hostile that the original piece seemed set out to be, which is quite an interesting read.

Now, academic disputes and spats are par for the course and shouldn't really always be taken at face value. After all, without provocation, issues can remain entrenched in safe harbours surrounded by mutually enforcing perspectives as Adam Curtis has pointed out here. At the heart of Travis' argument is that some academics within the emergent area of Game Studies are too heavily focussed on combining game design and game theory in a way which seeks to make gamers sidestep the pleasures and fun in games and end up becoming hostile towards gamers who do not want to get political (I think Wilson and Murray are his real targets here):
'Simply put, game studies' focus on design is what makes Wilson hate gamers. Gamers who won't get political, who won't be persuaded threaten to throw a wrench in the works of his discipline.'
This position of an audience for a media product who fail to engage in the politics of a text is not a new one. I see it everyday when teaching (old) Media and Cultural Studies. Many students view texts as innocent, or as individual works of art created with specific intentions (to entertain, to illustrate, etc), as value free or ideologically neutral. It can be a little frustrating attempting to get them to open up and consider something they may not be familiar with, but it is also very rewarding when it works. It's unfair to target all gamers/audiences for not wanting to get political as we are seldom encouraged to be political in everyday life. My position is that a game need not have an overt political agenda, but that will not prevent those seeking a stance from finding one. It is this dimension of theoretical engagement with media texts which forms the core of much of (old) Media Studies.

Now I don't have a problem at all in accepting the claim from some quarters that a knowledge of games (be that from experience of from study) may assist in the design stages of games. Indeed, by following the development of Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft) it is clear that people like Clint Hocking (Project Lead) and Pat Redding (Narrative Designer) often draw their experience from theoretically informed positions (although I'm not claiming that they had done Game Studies 101 courses!) - you just have to take a look at Redding's slides for GDA 2007 to see that. Likewise, I'm sure that there are plenty of game developers out there who have varied and different backgrounds which enable them to produce fine games or critiques of games without having had an education in 'New Media Studies' or whatever Travis wants to finger for criticism. But that kind of misses the point.

There are plenty journalists out there working for major publishers/broadcasters who didn't study journalism yet who are more than adept at their job. That is not going to prevent new vocation-led courses from appearing which seem to offer a tailor built route into a particular job. There was a lot of hostility to these courses when they launched in the UK, notably from established editors and journalists. To criticise Game Studies related modules or courses based on a handful of figures is a little unfair as it suggests lends itself to the suggestion that the discipline is unified and fully formed when it might be fragmented and disparate.

I have no issue with Travis highlighting the inappropriateness of some of the comments other academics have made but I wonder how effective a piece his article was when it inspires some of the comments found here, particularly this:
'Wow, just wow. Take away all the poetry and prose (aka "big words"), and these "academics" are no different than internet forum trolls, spoiling for an argument over a fight that is full of personal opinion and conjecture. I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who spends hard earned money on their courses. Don't be fooled, all this crap just tries to give the impression of being intelligent, doesn't mean it is.'
That being said, there are some genuinely interesting comments following the article and over on Bogost's website which are worth following up.
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