Game Studies: Background on an academic debate

For much of the early 2000s I was very interested in Game Studies, partly due to a new fascination with my Xbox as well as a strong invovlement with digital media.  Recently I’ve started collaborating with a professor in the English department here at W&L on creating a game version of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Now I’m going back and updating my readings on game studies. But first I wanted to find a few readings suitable for upper-level English majors.

In approaching Game Studies from a literary perspective one should be careful not to get pulled into the perception that an academic debate exists regarding the role of narratology in how games work. Much of the fuel for this supposed conflict rises from an essay that characterizes the issue as a “divisive question” and even a potential “blood feud.” (Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004. 118-130.) Despite the contentious start, the essay by Jenkins is worth reading (a version exists online) and appears in an excellent series of monographs titled First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game; Second Person: Role-playing and Story in Games and Playable Media; and Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives.

A trait of that series is that the essays often include responses by other scholars. These responses are in the print version of the book as well as online. Read the Jenkins essay then the responses by Markku Eskelinen and Jon McKenzie, and then the response by Jenkins. Note that Jenkins argues that his essay rose from conversations with game designers and not with academics studying games, which may not always be the same audience. Two useful essays place this discussion in context and attempt to put the matter to rest:

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place.” [PDF] DiGRA Conf. 2003. [DiGRA is the Digital Games Research Association conference.]

Murray, Janet H. “The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies.”DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing views of worlds in play. 2005. (View the slides for that talk.)

These works use the term ludology, which is another way of describing Game Studies or  the academic study of games. Ludology is based on the Latin word ludus (game).

Okay, now that the ludology vs narratology issue is out of the way, we can move onto readings about game studies. A place to start is Jesper Juul’s “Games Telling Stories: A brief note on games and narratives“. The landmark book is Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) by Espen Aarseth.

Any examination of games and narratives is going to bring up a large set of articles and books by Marie-Laure Ryan, who has dozens of writings on narrative applied to a variety of aspects of digital media. A sample is “Fictional Worlds in the Digital Age” in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies.

In updating my readings I’ve been searching for scholarly articles written since 2010. In another post I’ll describe what I’ve found, but it’s raising the question: has game studies frizzled out as an academic discipline?

Quiet holidays with The English Patient

For years I spent the Thanksgiving holidays alone. Solitude always has been a great comfort for me, a form of re-energizing. Thanksgiving weekend 1996 stands out and I oddly comeback to it year after year.

I usually avoided telling people I was alone on Thanksgiving in order to avoid the awkward invitation to the festivities of other families. In 1996 I lived in Norfolk, Virginia. The weather was a cool, damp, gray autumn (or so I recall). That Wednesday night before Thanksgiving I wanted to go to the movies, which I did quite often in that stage of my life. A movie starting that night was The English Patient. I drove out to the Regal Cinema in the suburban city known as Virginia Beach. I always arrive almost anyplace far too early. I sat in the parking lot in my Honda Accord, waiting an appropriate amount of time, probably fifteen to twenty minutes, which is why I remember the weather that evening, though I could very well be confusing it with some other evening in the cinema parking lot.

A few years before when I lived in Knoxville I had read Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, which I enjoyed immensely despite the complicated plot structure. Upon completing the novel I remarked to myself, “This book can never be filmed.” Obviously I was wrong. But I did not have high expectations for the movie. And it seems on that first night few people did.

In those years I regularly read a glossy movie magazine that highlighted current films. A special edition highlighted movies coming out during the holidays. The English Patient was given small mention but greater attention was given to another period piece starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock. I recall the magazine touting that The English Patient had little chance competing at the box office against the O’Donnell/Bullock In Love and War. Perhaps that was a fair assertion, though it seems ludicrous in hindsight. But In Love and War was directed by the acclaimed Richard Attenborough, based on writings by Hemingway, and starred two popular names at the time.

It must be pointed out that I avoid reading reviews of a movie until after I’ve seen the film. Movie reviews just reveal too much. At the Regal Cinema that night, only a small auditorium was allotted to The English Patient, again another hint that large crowds were not expected. But the tiny theater was packed. And now whenever I see that movie again, as the opening credits play, followed by the tinkling sounds of the bottles, I find myself mentally transported back to that night. Almost three hours later I left the theater, having stayed seated through the final credits. I walked out to my car alone and drove back to my apartment in Norfolk.

I would go see that movie again before the weekend was over. During the Christmas holiday I went home to Tennessee and took my mother to see the movie at the old Belcourt theater in Nashville. Back in Virginia I would see the movie even more. I never watch a movie more than once on my own, but that fall and winter I went to see The English Patient at least a half-dozen times. Maybe I had fallen in love with Juliette Binoche.

A more personal turn

I keep wanting this blog to have a focus, but there are too many varied thoughts in my head. So I’m opening this blogging space up to myself, which is appropriate since I write as much for myself as for anyone. Actually, I write mostly for my daughter Mila so that she might find these posts someday and learn more about the ideas that excited me.

For those of you out there following along, I promise to, at least, mark my posts in relevant categories so that you can choose what to ignore.

My first friend

Earlier in the week I learned of the death of Van Perdue at the age of 51, a man from my hometown, a guy I’ve not seen in decades. Yet, he appears in so many of my early childhood memories. We lived around the corner from each other. Our parents were friends. As the case in a small Tennessee town our families knew each other, and their parents and grandparents.

I have a young daughter approaching her fourth birthday, which has caused me to think a lot about myself at that young age. Over the past year those memories have been much in my mind. Of course, the memories are just fragments. And there has been Van in those memories of when my family lived on Lee Street. After we moved to the other side of town when I was in the 2nd grade I lost touch with him since he was a few years ahead of me in school. But he was my first friend and will always be there in my mind.

Planning for DH in the liberal arts

One of the exicting areas I’m involved in at Washington & Lee is the digital humanities initiative. I recently co-authored a case study that describes the first two years of DH at this liberal arts college: Launching the Digital Humanities Movement at Washington and Lee University: A Case Study.

A lot of really great DH activities are in the pipeline here. I’m quite amazed at where this small liberal arts college is heading with DH over the next few years.