January 22, 2005

Children’s Lit, Comp Sci, and Games

by Nick Montfort · , 6:57 pm

In the latest IGDA Ivory Tower column, two University of Florida doctoral students call for an interdisciplinary approach to game studies – specifically, connecting children’s literature studies and video game studies. The authors are prolific digital media scholar Laurie Taylor and Cathlena Martin, who works with children’s literature and digital media.

I think they should go for it. A strong research result that comes from children’s lit + video game studies is exactly what would persuade me of the value of this combination.

Their proposal doesn’t seem to offer the clearest scenario showing the value of interdisciplinarity, though…

In the column, two scholars, both from the same English department, discuss how two of their research areas relate. They seem to be considering fields that are defined by their objects of study rather than by their approaches or methodologies. Semiotics, narratology, cultural studies, textual studies, and ethnography, for example, seem to me to be approaches or methodologies, while children’s literature seems to involve several approaches to a defined set of texts. (I’ve only taken one class in children’s fiction, so I could be wrong here, but I don’t think there is a single system of methods associated with it.) I suppose I would consider that bringing one new approach to bear on some digital media objects (e.g., narratology + interactive fiction by itself) is novel but not particularly interdisciplinary, while bringing several new and different approaches to bear might be. What definitely seems interdisciplinary is the development of a whole new approach by analogy to earlier ones from different fields: Cybertext and Computers as Theater provide two of several examples in new media. To reach outside new media, the development of Centering Theory, a theory of local coherence in discourse, provides a clear example of interdisciplinary work: the major work on it was done by a computer scientist, philosophers, and a linguist, using approaches and techniques from their different fields.

I’m curious, too, about Taylor and Martin’s assertion that

game studies rests more comfortably in computer science programs … computer science focus[es] more heavily on applied research and production … rather than theoretical and analytical research found more strongly in humanities programs.

First, where are the game studies programs that are situated comfortably in computer science programs? Honestly – please tell me!

I think I’m the closest thing to a game studies scholar in Penn’s CIS department, and often, when I go to present about games at conferences – for instance, Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticsm at Princeton and Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling at UCLA, both of which Taylor also attended and presented at – I seem to be the only computer scientist on the program. When that isn’t the case, it’s because Michael is there at the conference. Although, the majority share of Michael is now associated with LCC (where his office is) rather than the College of Computing, so while he’s a computer scientist, he’s not really currently situated in a CS program himself.

Second, how does (academic) computer science focus heavily on “applied research and production” and lack “theoretical and analytical research”? I can see how people might get this impression if they judge the discipline based on introduction to programming classes, which involve a lot of programming, even though these classes are not about applied research or production. But that’s like saying that if I only considered composition classes, I would get the impression that English departments are heavily focused on teaching people to write well. While there are subfields of CS that seem a bit more industrial and applied, the idea that there’s little “theoretical and analytical research” really makes little sense to me as a doctoral student in computer science. I’m doing such research, and am surrounded by people who are.

Now, computer science is concerned with results that have generality, not with the specificity of particular new media works, or cultures, or individuals. Because of that, I think there’s little reason to fear that CS will swallow game studies, and little hope that CS departments will provide much of a context for game studies researchers. But the discipline of computer science does have a lot to offer us as we try to understand creative computer programs, and as we study computer systems that enable interpersonal communication and virtual worlds. In terms of scholarship, the value of joining CS approaches with those from other disciplines is seen in Espen Aarseth’s work and Jesper Juul’s recent dissertation. In terms of pedagogy, Michael’s class provides the proof.

One barrier to interdisciplinary work in new media (of the sort seen in the development of Centering Theory) is the general unwillingness of new media scholars to collaborate. So, I do commend Taylor and Martin for writing their Ivory Tower column together, and I hope others follow their example of collaboration when they are seeking to understand how new approaches can be joined for use in new media.