February 26, 2004
Deconstructing the Video Game
OME day Dexter Palmer might be a professor of 20th-century American video games, editing The Annals of Computer Game Research with his good friend and colleague Roger Bellin, who by then might hold the Grand Theft Auto Endowed Chair at a prestigious university.
Right now, Dr. Palmer and Mr. Bellin analyze video games only on the side. Dr. Palmer, a 29-year-old with a Ph.D. in English, writes test questions by day for the Educational Testing Service (and by night reworks his dissertation on James Joyce, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon into a book).
Mr. Bellin, 26, who once designed educational video games, is a Princeton graduate student studying a more traditional American storytelling medium: books.
Video-game studies is still a nascent field, too young to have a standard list of must-play games, let alone endowed professorships. The day Mr. Bellin and Dr. Palmer can meet at the faculty club to discuss Mr. Bellin's seminar on first-person shooters of the 1990's, or reminisce about Dr. Palmer's mastery of Akira's Stun Palm of Doom in time to complete his exegesis of Virtua Fighter 4, is still far off.
Nonetheless, the first 30 years of video-game history have provided ample material for game critics, Mr. Bellin says. "Even discounting all but the very best examples, there are already enough games around to keep critics busy for a long time," he said. But critics are uncertain about what to do with these riches. "There just isn't yet much agreement about what critical vocabulary, what concepts, we would need in order to make claims about games and evaluate them confidently," Mr. Bellin said.
To that end, Mr. Bellin and Dr. Palmer have organized a conference on March 6 at Princeton called "Form, Culture and Video Game Criticism," the first of its kind at an Ivy League university.
A lawyer, a journalist, a composer, two professors, two lecturers and six graduate students will present papers with titles like "Musical Byproducts of Atari 2600 Games" and "But Our Princess Is in Another Castle: Towards a 'Close-Playing' of Super Mario Brothers."
Mr. Bellin and Dr. Palmer's premise is shared by others who study computer games: games are credible objects of intellectual inquiry because they are central to American popular entertainment and a major global industry. According to the Entertainment Software Association, entertainment software sales reached $6.9 billion in the United States in 2002; the British Department of Trade and Industry reported that the worldwide market reached more than $21 billion in 2001.
In fact, video games have long been a focus of academic study. In 1985 Mary Ann Buckles wrote what is considered to be the first dissertation about a computer game. During the 1980's and 1990's, psychologists and sociologists studied the links between games and violence, and which features of games attracted more boys than girls. Researchers came to games from disparate fields: computer science, literary studies and film studies.
But since 2000, game studies has begun carving out its own territory. Universities in both the United States and Europe offer graduate programs in game studies, and conferences devoted to games, like the one at Princeton, are becoming more common. A professional organization, the Digital Game Researchers Association (www .digra.org), links developers with academic researchers. Scholars can publish in three peer-reviewed journals and contribute to game studies Web logs (ludology.org, ludonauts.com, terranova.blogs.com and buzzcut.com). The field's snappy new name is ludology, from ludus, Latin for game.
Now game critics are rephrasing the fundamental questions that Aristotle gave to literary studies about 2,300 years ago: What is the purpose of a game? How do we describe the experience of playing a game, or game play?
Others say that games need a Shakespeare, someone who can catapult the digital medium forward. "But Aristotle was one of the things that helped create Shakespeare," said Janet Murray, who teaches game design and interactive media at Georgia Institute of Technology, the first American university to offer a Ph.D. in humanities-based digital media. "Putting those things together, the analysis of games with a tradition of storytelling, trying to have a critical vocabulary of games that will help raise the standards of practice."
Aristotle might begin by asking, "What is a game?" To answer, critics point to a spectrum of games from abstract to narrative, with Tetris at one end and Grand Theft Auto on the other. Yet The Sims or Sim City, which a player neither wins nor loses, leaves critics divided, as does EverQuest, if one requires that a game have a definite endpoint. (As its title suggests, EverQuest can be played perpetually.) To further complicate the definition, the linear quest game Half-Life has only one course of action, giving a player no influence over the final outcome. Does that make it a game, or merely a story disguised as a game?
Such confusion is not unique to game studies, says Gonzalo Frasca, a game developer from Uruguay who now studies games at the Center for Computer Game Research at the IT University in Copenhagen, which has emerged as a hub of game studies. "Defining games is as hard as defining other categories, such as literature or film," Mr. Frasca said. "We all agree that novels are literature, but what about toilet graffiti? Are Webcams examples of film?"
Game studies can comfortably live with disagreement on the issue of what constitutes a game, according to Espen Aarseth, who is the principal researcher at the Center for Computer Games Research and a co-founder with Susana Tosca of the field's first journal, Game Studies. What the emerging field lacks are senior researchers who can guide young scholars and enforce standards for research. (The field is so young that at 38, Dr. Aarseth already qualifies.) "If game studies is to advance as a field and be of use to society, it must develop a research program that can unite artistic, social and technical perspectives," he said.
That means developing ways to study games that are specific to the medium. Borrowing methodologies from other fields like film studies works to a point. Dr. Palmer, co-organizer of the Princeton conference, said that he and Mr. Bellin turned down papers that misapplied theories of film to gaming. "Many of them tended to view games simply as films with an element of interactivity shoehorned into them, which is, I think, the wrong way to go," he said.
Games are also different because there are so many ways into them. One unique methodology is called close gameplay, in which a researcher plays critical scenes of a game repeatedly, analyzing the details, perhaps searching for an anomaly the programmers have buried in the code or simply arriving at some resolution.
But close game play may require researchers to use cheat codes or other game-play hacks. This is a new issue in game studies circles, said Mia Consalvo, an assistant professor at Ohio University who studies the place cheating has in the game industry. "To get a really good idea of how the game plays, you shouldn't cheat," she said. The length of the game, she said, is crucial to the experience that a player has.
On the other hand, academics may not have the time to become power players, racking up a huge max chain on Ikagura or playing Diablo three times through without dying. "Games are big, big objects," said Barry Atkins, who teaches in the English department at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. "The days when you could play a couple of hours of Myst and write about it are over."
Dr. Atkins admitted that he didn't finish Half-Life before writing about it in his 2003 book, "More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form," (Manchester University Press), and only later realized he was two minutes from the shocking plot reversal at the end when he stopped. "I am very nervous that I got it wrong," he said.
And from the perspective of game developers, academics and their concerns seem distant. "So far, the academic and the industry worlds, they're very far away," said Mr. Frasca, who intends to play a role of a bridge. "Developers do not read academic articles, and that's not going to happen any time soon." Academics generated animosity early on by judging games as violent. "They were also not gamers," he said, "which made it weird to listen to their analyses."
If a game-studies Aristotle is going to emerge, he or she will most likely come from the generation for whom playing games well is not far-fetched. "To be able to write the seminal text on video games, you have to have grown up playing them," said Dr. Atkins, who persuaded his university to pay for him to attend the Princeton conference. A tenured professor, he reports that his field of interest is stigmatized. "It's fairly standard, the frowns I get from colleagues," he said.
Likewise, a Shakespeare might come from the generation of young scholars with an intellectual understanding of games and a familiarity with their underlying code. Nick Montfort, 31, a writer of interactive fiction and co-founder of another game studies Web log, grandtextauto.gatech.edu, defends his return to graduate school in computer science last year at the University of Pennsylvania. "How are we going to understand how complex virtual worlds are put together if we don't understand how a computer program works?" he asked.
An expert on literary modernism, Dr. Palmer wonders if game critics might also play a role in explaining difficult games, much as literary critics explained difficult texts like those written by Joyce, Pynchon and Gaddis.
To put it another way, just because easy games like The Sims, Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider are best sellers, should critics focus only on them? Dr. Palmer said that no one submitted a paper to the conference on an obscure Japanese role-playing game called Arc the Lad II, which was adapted for the American market in 2002 by Working Designs, a licensed third-party publisher for Sony.
Maybe, he said, game critics can someday explicate Arc the Lad, bringing it to a larger market in the same way that the literary entrepreneur Sylvia Beach supported Joyce and published "Ulysses."
"But I don't want to draw the comparison between Arc the Lad and 'Ulysses,' " Dr. Palmer said, "because that would be very, very wrong."