September 7, 2004

Academic vs. Developer, They Will Fight Eternally

by Nick Montfort · , 11:51 am

Andrew pointed to a followup conversation about academia vs. industry on GameGirlAdvance, following up on the GameSpot article on the topic. In GGA comments, gman wrote: “I don’t agree that academics can teach us ‘how we can make them [games] better’. I don’t think they’ve done it in any other entertainment.” Mark replied, “Without being too agressive, I’d say that your opinion IS uninformed.”

I have to side with Mark on this one. Looking at interactive fiction and the novel particularly, I’ve tried to explore the relationship of academia to “industry” (or, “the creative process”) below…

Here are a few of the academics involved with interactive fiction who I can think of right off — I’m considering an “academic” to be someone who was affiliated with a university as a student, researcher, or professor when they did the work mentioned:

The modern video game (I consider Spacewar to be the first example, as I think is typical) was invented by academics (Steve Russell et al. at MIT). A host of other early computer games were developed at universities, including the first first-person shooter, Maze. BASIC, which helped to make game programming widespread in the 1980s and which I think had a huge influence on computer gaming by making programming more popular, was also university-developed.

As far as the novel is concerned: The academics C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have already been mentioned at GGA; Alain Robbe-Grillet and Umberto Eco are two other novelists, of many, who are worth noting, and whose own academic work has informed their development of, perhaps reinvention of, the novel.

Lists like these both overstate and understate the role of academic thought in the creative process, though. They overstate it because the academic context (availability of computers, time to program them, etc.) made the most difference in enabling some early works. It wasn’t that a long program of official interactive fiction study led to Zork being written at MIT — still, even in that case, Winograd’s work on SHRDLU was probably an influence on Zork‘s development. At any rate, such lists also understate the influence of academic thought, because you don’t have to be at a university for such thought and discussion to make a difference to your work.

For instance, Don DeLillo is not an academic. As far as I know, he has never taught at a college or university, and the impression I get from reading interviews with him (they aren’t as rare as is reputed) is that he actively disliked his years as an undergraduate at Fordham. Yet it’s not unusual for DeLillo to reply to a question, as in this interview, like so:

I would like to start off from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). He suggested that the more a picture is being reproduced, by photography for instance, the more the ‘aura’ of the work of art whithers.

Someone who characterizes DeLillo as having no relationship to academic thought — or as being only a satirist of the academic (as if that was what White Noise is about) — is going to have a hard time appreciating and understanding his work. I don’t know to answer to “does Steven Speilberg use academics when making movies?” (a question gman asked on GameGirlAdvance) but Don DeLillo certainly uses academics when making books. In interactive fiction, Adam Cadre is a good example of a non-academic, albeit one who works as a teacher of college prep courses, who is informed by academic thought.

I think game developers are quite influenced by academic thinking about video games, whether they know it or not, and that this influence arrives through many channels, some of which have been pointed out in the Game Girl Advance discussion. Developers who think really deeply about issues in design often know where the currents of thought that they are following began.

Neither academic thinking nor creative development occurs independently, of course: even academics looking back at historical games, novels, films, etc. are influenced in their thinking by the things that are being created today. But academia can provide the space and time to consider a broad range of work, not just what is marketable at this moment, and to develop new ways of thinking about video and computer games that the market would not come up with on its own. Sometimes sitting apart in that space for such a time makes it seem that you’re in an ivory tower, but this type of thinking is necessary. Some of it may eventually lead to profits in the marketplace; some of it may not, but could still help to shape our culture and the way we understand it.

9 Responses to “Academic vs. Developer, They Will Fight Eternally”

  1. Greg Turner Says:

    Hmmm. Ken Perlin’s got an Oscar, hasn’t he?

    Kubrik engaged the services of Marvin Minsky on 2001: A Space Oddyssey.

  2. Ian Bogost Says:

    There is an extended, erm, debate of sorts on the DiGRA list right now apropos to this topic. I think you can pick it up in the archives on

  3. diane greco Says:

    I want (you) to push a little harder on what you’re calling “academic thinking” or “academic thought”.
    How is it different from just plain thinking, apart from the space in which it happens?

  4. nick Says:

    Diane, a reasonable question. I don’t mean to differentiate all “academic thought” from “commercial” or “plain” thinking, to suggest that people think differently the moment they become affiliated with a university (and the moment they leave). Rather, I was intending to refer to the kind of thinking that universities and colleges, at their best, foster: deep and detailed consideration that is less bound to everyday concerns than “plain thinking” is, but that attempts to push the boundaries of what we know, how we understand our world and culture. At its best, this comes with an openness to discuss your thinking with others, present and publish about it, and learn from others about what parts of your approach are more or less useful.

    The university isn’t the only place that offers good environments for thinking, so I don’t mean to claim all advanced thought for academics. I do want to resist the idea that “academic” means “meaningless and without any impact in the real world,” though. I think electronic literature, interactive fiction, and video gaming would be much worse off if the environment of the university, and the thinking that took place there, hadn’t been around.

  5. andrew Says:

    When I compare good academic discourse to good non-academic discourse, examples of the latter being the better essays by developers and self-published individuals, I notice that academics are usually more careful to cite past thinking and past work. It’s not that non-academics are ignorant of what’s already been done or said (although this is sometimes the case); rather, academics were required to study up on past work during their training, and are required by convention to do the labor to cite past work in their writings. Non-academics are free to be more casual about it, and can get lazy.

    Being forced to address past work usually makes an author’s argument more credible and fair, and usually improves the quality of the argument itself, since it’s more informed. However there are plenty of times I’ve seen lousy academic work get away with not properly citing past work. Also, both academics and non- are usually guilty of not citing each others’ past work, even if they carefully refer back to their own camp’s past work.

    And sometimes academics build new theories totally on top of or within past theories, sometimes without any new experimentation or firm grounding in usefulness or reality. When this goes too far, this is when non-academics feel like academics are in their own little world, guilty of “intellectual masturbation”.

    Using myself as a case study of a non-academic who has published relatively extensively in academic venues, I’ve found my argumentation has been forced to become more rigorous, to rise towards the requirements of academic discourse. However, free from the need to publish or perish, and free from the politics of getting tenure, non-academics like me don’t have to deal with the temptation to publish for the sake of publishing, which may make it easier to keep our feet planted on the ground.

    To return to the original quote from gman, “I don’t agree that academics can teach us ‘how we can make [games] better’”, I wouldn’t exactly respond with, “No, academics can teach developers how to make games better”. I would answer with, “Academics can offer ideas, analysis, techniques and experimental results to help developers make games better.”

  6. Abject Learning Says:
    Reuse, recycle, regurgitate
    A few of the items I have noted over on the Textologies Weblog, copied and pasted here, for your cross-posted convenience. 1) A hot item bouncing around the Web today is a piece by Paul Graham, entitled The Age of the Essay. A polemic, a history, a gui…

  7. Emily Short Says:

    I think an academic background does tend to foster certain tendencies, such as an awareness of past work (as andrew says), and a tendency to consider and discuss one’s own methods. But I don’t think of these as strictly academic tools. On the contrary, I’d say that they are fundamental to the way one learns the craft required to practice any art form.

    I do worry about any work that takes place in total isolation from any discussion of craft or experience of prior work, since more often than not it tends to reinvent the wheel (badly); I also worry about any theory formed without practical experience, since I often find it either vacant or silly. This is not, by the way, an complaint leveled specifically at game studies. There are works of classics scholarship that have left me wondering whether the scholar had ever written anything creative in his life.

    Ultimately I think over-emphasizing the division between an “academic” approach and a “practical” one does both sides a disservice. It encourages professional academics toward obfuscation and abstraction, while strongly implying to the practioner that academic input is useless and abstract discussion of craft a waste of time. In fact, the core skills of the professional academic are useful in every sort of intellectual endeavor: the ability to read, write, argue, study precedents, compare, draw conclusions, postulate new directions, experiment, explore, and refine one’s thought with new input. The professional academic may have access to different resources and use different terminology, but ideally (in my opinion) what he writes should still make sense, and be of value, to an educated layman, with a little explanation of terms.

    There is also an issue of focus, of course. Academic writing does often tend to say, not “here is how you achieve goals X, Y, and Z,” but “here is what was achieved by works A, B, and C.” It can take some work to read that second kind of essay and come up with ideas to take back to one’s own craft, especially if the discussion doesn’t go much into means.

  8. andrew Says:

    Terra Nova has begun snacking on the can of worms recently re-opened by Julian Kucklich’s critique of First Person on EBR. The Terra Nova post links to this discussion, but we got no trackback, so I’m posting this manually.

  9. greglas Says:

    Typepad doesn’t automate the trackbacks, so the TN authors are often pointing over here but just haven’t figured out how to (or in my case, are too lazy to) notify. :-)

    Diane’s question is excellent, btw. We lapse into these academic/non-academic distinctions as if they had some substance, when we’re probably just pointing to conventions of discourse — and perhaps motivations for using those conventions.

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