Jan 21, 2011

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - Game Studies (Part 1)


'Game studies' refers to the still young field of (as the name suggests) studying games, and encompasses several different lines of enquiry. These are much what one would expect. First there is the industrial or engineering approach, to do with the technical aspects of games. There is also the social science approach, which is concerned with what effects games have on people. Finally there is the focus of this chapter - looking at games from the perspective of the humanities. The questions raised by this line of inquiry are to do with meaning, content, and the critical analysis of games as artefacts. It is through this line of inquiry that we can gain an understanding of what games actually are as a medium, and what they have to offer in terms of experiences. The purpose of this chapter of the thesis is to gain an understanding of the medium, which can then be applied to case studies of specific games with a focus on determining the presence of art in games, or the lack thereof.

When it comes to understanding the content of games, there are two main schools of thought dubbed 'narratology' and 'ludology'. Narrativists believe that games are narratives, and must be understood as such, whereas ludologists argue that games need to be understood primarily through their rules and structure – essentially, that games are only understood through constructs which are unique to them, as opposed to broader narrative theory. There is significant overlap between these two schools of thought; few narrativists would claim that the ludic parts (meaning those parts which make a game a game, not some other type of media) of games are unimportant, even if they do not consider them to be the most important thing when trying to understand games. Similarly, ludologists generally recognise that there is some overlap between games and narratives, even if understanding games in terms of those aspects which make them a game is more important for comprehending the medium. Therefore, regardless of one's own opinion, it seems clear that in order to fully understand the medium, both points of view must be taken into account because most people would agree that both ludic concerns and narrative are in some way a part of games. As Diane Carr writes in Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play: 


It would be nonsensical to disregard the parts of [a game] that make it a game, in order to have it conform to a model of narrative structure. On the other hand, it would be counterproductive to ignore the game's narrative qualities, in order to have it obey a preconception about what games (and hence the study of games) should be about.”1

The first area that is necessary to explore is the area of determining exactly what a game is. Different criteria for 'gameness' have been proposed by different parties, as well as the idea of classifying games as being a new type of literature. Computer Games presents a few options for definition of the medium. Firstly, it states that it is vital that games be studied as games specifically, and not treated as a new form of another medium. It then exemplifies other definitions of games which have previously been suggested. Firstly, it gives a definition proposed by Celia Pearce, a games designer, who says that:

A game is a structured framework for spontaneous play consisting of:
  • A goal (and a variety of related sub-goals)
  • Obstacles (designed to prevent you from obtaining your goal)
  • Resources (to assist you in obtaining your goal)
  • Rewards (for progress in the game, often in the form of resources)
  • Penalties (for failing to overcome obstacles, often in the form of more obstacles)
  • Information
    - Known to all players and the game
    - Known to individual players (e.g. a hand of cards)
    - Known only to the game
    - Progressive information (moves from one state of knowledge to another)2

This definition gives a list of the components within a game without really telling you much about the meta-structure. The first sentence is for us perhaps the most useful, because it “points out the fundamental difference between games an other kinds of cultural texts: games are played, and the rules of the game provide a framework for play. Thus a computer game is not as self-contained as a book or a film, and games involve a different type and level of participation from that of reading a novel or watching a movie.” This description of games also specifies that this play is spontaneous. What this means in practical terms, is that playing a game provides a variable experience (or variable narrative) for each player and on each playing. It is generally impossible to recreate exactly the same experience again when playing a game, whereas the content of a book or film is static. Reader-response theory tells us that people interpret texts in different ways and take on the role of co-creator to a fairly large extent, and some would say that the variety of interpretation possible as a response to ambiguous texts is much the same as the non-static experience here attributed to gaming. The difference is that in both of those cases, although the reader is free to interpret and extrapolate different meanigns from a text, the text itself is not chaning, where as in a game a player actively changes the actual text which they are exposed to. More on this later.

Another model is one proposed by Jesper Juul, who says that games can be defined by the six following features;

  1. Games are based on rules.
  2. Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
  3. Different values (positive or negative) are assigned to these outcomes.
  4. The player invests effort to achieve the desired outcome.
  5. The player is emotionally 'attached' to the outcome.
  6. Games have negotiable consequences in real life.3

This gives a more detailed picture of what games are overall. They are based on rules, and a player invests effort in order to achieve something which has meaning inside the context of the game. The emotional attachment mentioned in point 5 does not necessarily refer to the kind of emotional experience that might indicate that by some definitions, games must be art. The attachment referred to is often simply that the player, for what ever reason, wants to win the game. Point 6 hints at the separation between games and real life – the consequences (if any) the game will have in real life are negotiable, decided by the player (by, for example, placing a bet in the outcome of a game, or taking part in a competition with a prize for the winner).

The authors of Computer Games itself feel that it is necessary to make more of a point of the separation of games and real life. Games are essentially fictional and “however emotionally 'attached' players may be to the outcome of a game, they nevertheless recognize on some level that it is 'just a game'.”4 This separation between games and real life is integral – inside a game, the rules of that game define what is important, what can and cannot be done, and so on. The rules of the game are king within the game itself, however, in the real world, outside the context of the game, they have no power.


1 Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, 38.
2 Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, 5.
3 Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, 6.
4 Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, 7.

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