May 10, 2008
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Defending Game Studies

Greg Costikyan gives us a sound defense of Game Studies in riposte to a provocative denunciation by Greg Travis. They're both right.

Travis (a professor of Classics) observes correctly that the concerns of Game Studies are not the concerns of people who enjoy the games, and indeed Games Studies often views designers and players alike with a certain haughty disdain. The core issue: we see the flaws in games. If we study them carefully and thoroughly, these flaws become more and more glaring. And we see the flaws in gamers, too. A filmgoer who adores Herzog and Fassbinder is no less a grognard than a gamer, but we tend to visualize one as a desirable and handsome adult and the other as an immature adolescent.

By pretending that game studies stands alone as a unified discipline rather than at the nexus of various other fields, scholars of game studies (and those of departments that call themselves things like "digital media studies") are institutionalizing exactly what Wilson feels: antipathy to the real culture of gaming. The more entrenched the notion becomes that gamers are abnormal and defective, the longer it will take for real works of art like Sins of a Solar Empire, BioShock and, yes, even Halo to vindicate gaming as a worthwhile pursuit.

Travis sees as particularly pernicious the academic desire to encourage people to create serious, persuasive games; he observes that these exercises have seldom been much fun to play.

Costikyan defends Game Studies as a necessary step, part of the evolution of game criticism that might guide games out of the malaise of commercially-constrained repetition that plagues the industry.

...a natural evolution of game culture, a recognition by the academy that games, and game culture, are now sufficiently important enough to be worthy of, and to repay, study. And since gamers, or the more sophisticated among them, are among the natural audience for the products of game studies, game studies helps to inform game culture -- and, I believe, modify it for the better.

The root discomfort, of course, is the games we play. Those that are fun seldom bear thinking about; those we can think about are rarely much fun. Persuasive games are not very persuasive, either — as far as I am aware, the best of these occasionally aspire to the subtlety of Soviet poster art.