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The Conversation Continues: On Disciplinarity

Following up on our previous "digital conversation" regarding design, we felt it would be nice to continue the dialogue by adding a new voice. This time our friend Doug Wilson from IT University of Copenhagen joins the fray as we dissect the notion of "game studies" as a discipline, and explore the interdisciplinary nature of research on games.

Abe:I have been thinking about "game studies" as an academic discipline relative to other, older, more traditional educational departments like Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, or Philosophy. The fact is, many game studies scholars are approaching video games from different perspectives with drastically different theoretical lenses and research methods. The single unifying thread tying various scholars in the game studies domain is the supposed object of their inquiry: games... no wait, players! Crap... never mind.

While this certainly makes for some exciting conversations, one of my concerns is that with so many scholars approaching game studies from so many different directions, it becomes hard to have a coherent conversation. For example, someone might write a text that is approaching games from a philosophical lens, in the most traditional of senses, positioning his/her argument somewhere in a long history of broader philosophical discourse. To fully understand such a text, one would need to read it within a certain philosophical context. Simply reading the text as a "game studies" document, would be limiting. This is fine for someone who wants to put in the time reading and becoming familiar with Philosophy as a course of study, but what about everyone else?

With so many lenses, so many methods, and so many perspectives, how could anyone be accurately categorized as a "game studies" scholar? Nobody would have the time to familiarize themselves with the entirety of thought necessary to be so broad an academic. Would it not be more useful to be aligned with others who are working in the same discipline, that is to say, philosophers studying games with other philosophers, sociologists studying players with other sociologists, and anthropologists studying games played with other anthropologists?

Is game studies a legitimate "discipline"? And should we even want it to be one? These questions have been addressed many times before, perhaps most famously by Espen Aarseth in his 2001 editorial for the very first issue of the Game Studies journal. For Aarseth, the question seems to be inextricably intertwined with academic politics. He worries that "the fundamentally unique aspects of the games" will be overlooked if left to the analyses of other, already existing fields.

(If I could give stage directions in a blog post, I would write here: cue 2001 era "ludology vs. narratology" dispute).

For me, however, the question inevitably leads back to a more general one: how should we structure interdisciplinary research? And when and why does an interdisciplinary endeavor become its own stable discipline?

On this question, I can only share my own personal struggles. Currently, as a PhD candidate, I find myself immersed in design theory, political science, and contemporary art - three fields which I only grazed in my previous educations (a self-designed BA in "digital humanities" and an MS in computer science). As a result, I worry constantly that I might be misreading a certain theorist, or that I might be naively rehashing old debates. To compound this problem, I do my work at IT University of Copenhagen's Center For Computer Games Research, an interdisciplinary group that houses researchers from a diversity of fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, philosophy, and interaction design. This means that I have few colleagues who are able to give me thorough, literature-grounded feedback on my work. For better or worse, I find myself in a situation where I am largely on my own.

I do think this constellation of disciplines works well for project-based research. In our department, for example, several computer science and serious games researchers are teaming up on large international multi-disciplinary projects. Humanities-based research, by contrast, still seems to be a very solitary, individualistic endeavor. Or at least that's the prevailing culture. You write your manuscript, solicit feedback, publish it as a book, then repeat. If I can be frank, I'm not convinced that I have the suitable training for that kind of work. I've always viewed myself as more of a "glue" person, amplifying and connecting the ideas of collaborators.

Thus, Abe, I'm inclined to agree with you. As far as "basic research" goes - especially basic research in the humanities - I do think it might be more useful to frame one's work within more "traditional" disciplines. Speaking from personal experience, I do worry that my academic work has suffered from my lack of grounding in a "home base."

Speaking as a practicing game designer, however, my interdisciplinary background has served me very well indeed! It has been tremendously empowering to be able to pull from disciplines as disparate as computer science, design research, and art theory. Moreover, my ability to "speak the language" of multiple disciplines has made it easy for me to collaborate with different types of people (i.e. programmers, artists, musicians, etc). Game development is, after all, a highly interdisciplinary endeavor.

In summary, I don't think it's a coincidence that my PhD research (e.g. here) has ended up focusing so intently on my ongoing design practice. That wasn't the plan when I originally applied for the PhD, but it makes sense that my deeply interdisciplinary background would be better geared to project-based work. As such, I suspect that the answer to your question, Abe, might be: it depends on what kind of research you hope to do!

Interdisciplinarity is certainly a big word around video game development and studies. Comparative Media Studies, the academic department that GAMBIT is affiliated with, puts enormous emphasis on interdisciplinary work. Doug's history is a perfect example of the advantage of this kind of work.

But as Abe has hinted, the multitude of scholars working under the guise "game studies" runs the risk of dilution. Subscribe to the DiGRA mailing list for a weekend (why is it always busy on the weekend?) and you will see many people arguing vehemently from a variety of perspectives, and it's hard to say whether anything is ever accomplished. I think this is at least partially because of the vast differences between subscribers. Hence the importance of indicating where you are coming from and what your perspectives are.

This line of thinking leads me to another point: I sometimes whether now is a good time for the study of "games" generally. The problem is that "games" is an enormous category including, at the bare minimum, both human experience and cultural artifacts, and it is easy for a theory applicable to one game to break down upon application to another. The field desperately needs more genre- and medium-specific studies of games, and those studies need to proclaim their perspective and focus. Interdisciplinarity is certainly valuable, but if I am attempting to describe a board game, and Abe is trying to apply those ideas to baseball, something is going to be lost in that communication. Similar problems occur when comparing games across (or even within) genres. As another example, in response to Abe and I's last conversational blog post, we had an interesting discussion with Doug on Twitter, and it became apparent that we were even operating under different understandings of "rules" - understandings that where shaped by our respective backgrounds, interests, and areas of research.

While this sounds pessimistic, I actually think it represents an enormous potential for widespread investigation, experimentation and research. "Game" is an extremely broad term and there is room for people with all manner of background and interest. I think a simultaneous mix of diversification and specialization - more people studying more games more specifically - would be invaluable in that it would create a stable base for the field.

It may be that I am the biggest pessimist of we three, for I am very afraid of the dilution of a scholastic field like game studies. I am often found asking for some higher standard, some greater sense of rigor in the realm of game studies, one I would be greatly challenged to live up to myself. Indeed, I often find myself slipping into the comforts of lazy analysis or reporting - the comforts of working over ideas without taking the time to dig deep enough into the history of the topic. Shame on me. Perhaps this is why I find myself trying to focus my work on the realm of sports and sports video games from the perspective of cultural anthropology, to have a stronger sense of home.

It comes back to this concern I have that without a well structured, historical and contextual lens, we may not even know in what direction we are looking. I try hard to imagine what a standardized "game studies" curriculum could be: what exacting standards, what theoretical frameworks, and what history would define expertise in the field. Regrettably my thoughts darken and I inevitably envision top ten lists of important video games, that regurgitate the same narrow, fan informed perspective. Can we agree that it is no longer enough to simply like games, or even to eloquently critique them, rather we need to ground analysis in a history of thought? But what history then?

I agree with you both about interdisciplinary emphasis. Starting my work in video games as a sound designer surely taught me the importance of all the constituent parts of game design. That said, I still feel that theory necessarily depends on the works of predecessors. This is the nature of philosophy. I think some of the conflict comes from the conflation of the study, and the creation of games. That, however, is another huge discussion.

Abe, I suspect that some of us game studies people could benefit from examining the history of other academic disciplines. For example, how and why did "computer science" become a stable academic discipline? Why didn't it just evolve as a sub-field of existing university departments like mathematics and electrical engineering? Despite my graduate comp sci degree, I don't actually know enough history to offer a coherent answer.

(More wishful stage directions: cue historians of science!)

But before I defer to the experts, I'd like to ask a leading question: is the professed object of study - the computer game - too narrow in scope? A discipline like biology is quite broad, spanning diverse interests such as molecular genetics, ecology, developmental biology, etc. The discipline of art history studies not only painting, but also a wide variety of different forms and traditions.

Yes, I do think "game studies" has (unfortunately) positioned itself as the study of digital games specifically. But even if we accept that game studies scholars are branching out into non-digital areas like board games, we might still ask why games studies is so socially and professionally isolated from other academic traditions like sports studies, folklore studies, play theory, etc. Can we ever hope to call ourselves a proper discipline as long as we remain so isolated from (and irrelevant to) those other communities that also study play and games?

Gosh, it would be so nice to build some stronger ties to the sports studies community in particular! (Abe, I bet you'd agree here).

I think that in this post we have accidentally managed to identify an interesting tension: dilution and amorphousness versus collaboration and inclusion. Clearly there are benefits to be had from incorporating other fields of inquiry into game studies, but there are also benefits to establishing "game studies" as a concrete discipline.

From whichever perspective one takes, however, it should be immediately clear that citing one's object of study as "games" or even "computer games" is not a very accurate or useful label. Doug, you asked, "is the professed object of study - the computer game - too narrow in scope?" I would be inclined to answer that present studies of computer games does not suffer from narrow scope, but rather lack of focus. The necessary questions of someone who studies "the computer game" should be "which aspects of which games in what context?"

For me, anyway, the take-away from this collaboration is that I now find it hard to have strong opinions either way. Games are a fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of the human condition, and we have barely scratched the surface of understanding precisely what they are, how they work, what roles they serve, and why they even exist. At this point "game studies" simply needs more of everything.

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