August 9, 2006

Ill-Fitting Smarty Pants?

by Andrew Stern · , 4:41 pm

Steve Meretzky may see The Escapist as one of the few brights spots in gaming / game criticism these days, but frankly it sometimes misses the mark (1 2). Witness this week’s impressively unnecessary anti-academic tirade. Either the editors are desperate for material, or have a worrisome misunderstanding of how academic study operates. So much for the idea of well-informed journalism.

(Note, my primary gig is not as an academic, so this shouldn’t be interpreted as a defensive statement.)

I will say, way back when, before I educated myself and kept up with, and participated some in, academic research in games, AI, etc., I was wary of the value, or at least the stance, of academic research. After all, I am an industry person making games (well, fringe games); developers like me should know more about this than anyone. And while there’s some truth to that, there’s also some truth that 1) developers are rarely good at communicating or explaining in clear terms what they’re doing or what they’ve done, or 2) if they are, they rarely have time to communicate it, and 3) there are a lot of smart people in the world, and some decide to devote their energies to carefully understanding and analyzing something, rather than conceiving, designing or building it, and finally 4) some manage to find the time to do both practice and theory, including many in this corner of the blogosphere.

And, of course, there will be some academics who are mediocre at what they do, or act pompous. Same goes for game developers, and every other profession in the world that requires thinking. Journalists too, obviously.

23 Responses to “Ill-Fitting Smarty Pants?”

  1. Alexander Says:

    I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed by the article. I read Allen’s piece more as one of dissatisfaction at the state of academic inquiry into games than as a repudiation of the value of academic inquiry over all.

    Within, for instance, the legal community (which I have some passing knowledge of from my squandered education), academic writing is often of significant, immediate, practical value to the business lawyer, who can better grasp key legal principles and evolving trends in the law from reading law reviews and ABA journals. The same would not be true of a game designer who expected to become better from studying academic works on games. And I think it’s that gap that Allen is speaking about when he brings up the academic war of narration v. play.

    Perhaps a more telling analogy: Allen is looking for “Creative Writing” college classes but all he’s finding are “Deconstructing English Literature” classes. Those might help you understand James Joyce, but they aren’t too helpful in helping you become the next Stephen King.

    Alex Macris
    Publisher, The Escapist

  2. Patrick Says:

    The funny thing is Allen Varney was a game designer, he designed the 2nd edition of Paranoia (1st edition by Greg Costikyan).

    I’ll do Janey Murray one up by resolving the whole debate right now, and in few words. Ludology is useful for analyzing mechanics and the system that exists before a play session begins, narratology is useful for analyzing aesthetics and the culturally significant (at least potentially) recounting of a past play session (which, I think, includes player created content, the scripts of Facade are a fine example, Sims movies as well). A body of theory that we need and that is underdeveloped is an Experientialist “ology” that focuses on game system dynamics and player experience as patterns, patterns which can modify and interact with each other in an autopoietic sense. I think Ian’s book does a good job of addressing the basis for such a framework , as does Koster’s, in a more basic, Highschool friendly way, but we need more. Maybe I’ll write a book in a couple of years…

  3. Oudeis Says:

    Yes, Mary, remember that journalists read very carefully before they publish anything…

  4. Allen Varney Says:

    You’re not making a “defensive statement”? Really? What, then, would constitute an actual defensive statement?

    Alex Macris is correct, of course; my article doesn’t attack the concept of academic study. (Clearly, bloggers also read very carefully before they publish anything.) Rather, I’m frustrated at the smart people who have supposedly decided they want to carefully analyze and understand games, yet prefer to squabble over trivialities and definitions. They have not, in fact, carried out careful analysis or achieved understanding. I can’t believe GTxA wants to defend this otiose work.

    But I’m always interested in becoming better informed, so that I may hope someday to rise above mediocrity and pomposity. Please correct my worrisome understanding of how academic study operates.

    [N.B. I designed the fourth (current) edition of PARANOIA, published in 2004. Greg Costikyan co-designed the first two editions, in 1984 and 1987.]

  5. Walter Says:

    I think he’s not making a “defensive statement” insofar as he’s not personally defending himself as an academic.

    As far as immersion is concerned, I think Heidegger did a pretty swell job of explaining it in Being and Time, which can’t (or shouldn’t) be read without background in philosophy and a decent guide, like Dreyfus’ Being-in-the-World. A more accessible text on Heidegger’s relevant thought, applied specifically to HCI (but not to videogames), is Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Not as good as reading Heidegger, but a reasonable substitute if you don’t have the time or patience for his writing.

    And Flow, which you mentioned already, is a reasonable companion piece from a different discipline.

    Honestly, once you’ve read both, you shouldn’t need game studies academics to spell things out (much) further. Also, I don’t quite see why you’ve chosen to look at ludology vs. narratology/narrativism or game studies in general as though everyone was (or should have been) concerned about explaining immersion. Immersion is just one phenomenon, one aspect of gaming to study among others. If all you want to do is lose yourself, utterly, in a game, I guess I can see why immersion might be considered paramount, but as far as I’m concerned, there are other worthwhile goals games can pursue that don’t have to do with maximizing immersion.

  6. Allen Varney Says:

    Immersion was the theme of this issue of The Escapist, and so I sought explication for it in videogame theory. I didn’t find such explication, obviously; much of what I did find revolved around ludology vs. narratology, which is why I discussed that debate in my article. I could have chosen some different topic that provoked equally fruitless academic discussion. There’s certainly no shortage.

  7. Mike Calvin Says:

    Andrew, despite only focusing on the narratology/ludology debate, judging from what I’ve seen of it over the years, that acticle was a fair assessment of the world of game studies.

    For whilst initially promising the prospect of improved games as a result, the majority of it still serves, in my opinion, as either job creation schemes for academics, career-building for academics or as a grand game of creating excuses for the deficiencies of the game industry. I can understand from your numbered points that these people wish to feel needed, but surely they can also take a bit of criticism on the chin?

    As a practical example, you’re one of the people involved with the creation of Facade. Did any academic research of the sort we’ve been discussing help you with Facades creation? Did it improve your final product to any degree? Apart from trying to make some academics seem relevant to todays world, so to speak, what does all this academic research actually achieve?

  8. Patrick Says:

    One thing I think your article did well, Allen, was point to the need for a synthesis school of analysis, which to me implies that academics are alright, they just need a fresh injection to break up stale politics.

    Thanks for the correction on Paranoia. Have you played or read any Narrativist RPGs? They might be interesting to you, if (as I may be incorrectly inferring) you have a bias toward “gamist” systems and ludological analysis.

  9. Louis Dargin Says:

    I regard academic debates like ludology vs. narratology as being essential in provoking effort to better understand games. Writing off such debates as being useless can only lead to stagnation.

  10. andrew Says:

    There are several what I see as misunderstandings about academic study that have come up in The Escapist article and in the comments above. I’ll do my best to describe a few of them here, but then stop there, because I have little interest in pursuing this thread further than that.

    (I’ll repeat, I’m speaking from the perspective of a developer who has a strong interest in research, and has participated some in the academic process over the last 10 years, without any university affiliation or official academic job, i.e. an independent researcher who sometimes collaborates with academics. Also, my significant other is a scientist in academia, so I’m fairly familiar with academia’s ins and outs.)

    I’ll try to be brief, but this is a big topic, so bear with me.

    At its most pure, academic study about gaining understanding about the nature of the subject at hand: its form, structure, properties, its behavior, how it’s similar and different than other things. A straightforward pursuit of knowledge, really. The process sometimes involves formulation of hypotheses, models and theories to represent and communicate these understandings.

    Such “basic research” is often not directly applicable to building things.

    For example, my s.o. studies how neural cells operate, in minute detail. With this knowledge, she can’t immediately create medicines to cure diseases of those cells! The knowledge she gains in her basic research would have to be applied to drug development, which is a multi-year process all its own.

    So, it is immediately incorrect to assume academic study needs to have “immediate practical value” or “helpful in helping you become the next Stephen King”. That’s just not what pure academic study is intended to do!

    In the case of game studies, there has been no “initial promise of the prospect of improved games”, that I’m aware of.

    Well, geez, you might say, that’s kind of useless. Hmm. Yes, it some sense, you’re right, it’s useless — but no more useless than a painting. That is, it is inherently interesting and pleasurable to understand things. The pursuit of knowledge can be done for its own sake, no other justification required.

    If you don’t like that, you may be an anti-intellectual.

    However, sometimes the knowledge gained from academic study can be applied to building things. But again, that takes more work — that’s the “D” part of R&D. With game studies, you could argue it’s the game developer’s job to apply the basic research being done in game studies, assuming the developers care to try to harness this resource.

    The concept of an “academic war” in game studies, I think, is overblown. The exchange of ideas, in pursuit of knowledge, by way of publishing and presenting papers and having conversation and debate, either face to face, on listservs or blogs, isn’t a war. It’s almost always civil, and any discourse that isn’t civil is usually discouraged and dies down.

    Is there some less-than-pure fighting going on to gain turf, playing politics, etc. etc.? I suppose there’s some of it, but I haven’t seen it get too bad, no worse than what I’d see inside a corporation or some other institution where people want to gain notoriety, respect, etc. Academics are people too, with all their faults.

    Do academics “wish to feel needed”, i.e. wish to be considered the smart elite in society? Probably, but then again, most people want to be respected, that’s just another human trait. Can they “take a bit of criticism on the chin?” Sure, but in this case, the criticism is based on misunderstandings, and not going to have much effect.

    Let me make a few comments about game studies in particular. First of all, it’s a very young field; there’s been very little time to generate a lot of results yet. So it’s a misunderstanding to expect lots of knowledge produced so soon. Be patient.

    Some papers are by graduate students, some of whom are writing their first or second papers, and are in the process of learning how to do good research. On the whole, I tend to get more out of faculty member’s papers than grad students’ papers, but there are exceptions of course.

    The so-called “squabbl[ing] over trivialities and definitions” is part of the process of a community in the pursuit of knowledge agreeing upon the terms needed to define the conversation and knowledge itself. Believe it or not, personally I’ve found the most of the debate over ludology versus narratology very interesting, educational and even enjoyable.

    Is some academic work useless, even towards the straightforward pursuit of knowledge? Sure; just like in any profession, some of the work is crap, just like with game development, journalism, what have you.

    But plenty of game studies publications are interesting, and contribute to, or at least put us on the path, to an overall understanding of games. For example, I felt stimulated and educated by many of the papers and presentations at June 2005’s DiGRA, and I heard DAC last December was really great (I had to miss it because my s.o. was 8 months pregnant at the time).

    I’m asked, did any academic research of the sort we’ve discussing help with Façade‘s creation? My friends, Façade‘s creation was academic research. (And simultaneously, commerical product prototyping and a personal art project.) Façade was partly motivated as a direct response and contribution to the ludology vs. narratology debate, in particular attempting to bridge the gap between games and stories, by addressing the long-time conundrum: is it possible to create an interactive story with the same level of agency as a game? Please see our DiGRA paper (pdf) for details.

    And yes, I (and Michael) have found several game studies texts extremely useful in helping us get our head around how to tackle building something like Façade. A few big examples come to mind: Janet Murray’s identification of agency as a fundamental property of interactive entertainment helped us realize where we wanted to focus our efforts in Façade (versus, say, immersion, another property she describes). Aarseth’s point that readers of regular old books have more freedom to read a text non-linearly than readers of a hypertext fiction was a revelation to me. Frasca’s relating of Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed” to videogames suggests all kinds of great ideas for compelling interactive drama. More recently, Juul’s framing of the imagined world of videogames as fiction, not necessarily story, helps me understand a bit better what interactive drama doesn’t have to do. Those are just a few examples off the top of my head.

    And I’m just starting to read Ryan’s new book, Avatars of Story, which looks like it has quite a bit of analysis of the range of interactive stories that have been produced to date, and may even help me understand properties of Façade I wasn’t even aware of; again, I refer you to the four points I made in my original post above, about developers versus scholars.

  11. Espen Says:

    (Just a brief comment, on my way to an internet free vac.)

    I suppose I should be flattered to (again) be a target of an article in the Escapist, but I don’t quite see why I was quoted, as I say nothing about immersion in that essay, nor anywhere else in my writings that I am aware of. (And even if my point could be construed to be about immersion in games in general, which it can’t, the implied problem with my statement was left unexplained — it must have been obvious, then, I suppose…)

    Immersion is not a term I can use, as it is far too broad in this context — the atttraction of games is different from genre to genre — and I try to explain this in my intro theory class. That said, Laurel and Murray (and others) have addressed this topic nicely in their early books.

    As for humanities professors being useless; of course, if you look for A in their texts about B. Personally I would look to psychologists for an explanation; it just seems more in their alley. I do agree that the ludo-narrativism “debate” is fairly useless, but only because there is so little engagement on the only level that could make a difference: critical, dialogic scholarship.

    Have an interesting week, everyone!

  12. Allen Varney Says:

    I note that Andrew, having impugned my accuracy and competence in his original post, has offered a single reply and promptly announced he’s taking his football and going home. Classy.

    So, my alleged misunderstanding about academic study is that these theorists are pursuing basic research without immediate practical value, in the manner of pure mathematicians or Bell Labs physicists. “It is inherently interesting and pleasurable to understand things. The pursuit of knowledge can be done for its own sake, no other justification required.”

    If you take that position, the downside is that the research has to lead to understanding. Actual scientific researchers are well acquainted with their subjects, advance testable hypotheses, and (in the hard sciences) coordinate with applied researchers to design experiments. They quickly offer definitions, then move on to their model or hypothesis. Basic researchers in the sciences are, in fact, eager to see their models tested.

    Yet with some exceptions, videogame theorists seem strikingly, dismally unfamiliar with the large field of electronic games and their historical antecedents. Why, they’re even worse than Escapist journalists! Narrativists, in particular, avoid dropping any hint that they have personally played any game. Theorists rarely offer even thought experiments, let alone testable models, though I admire exceptions like Gonzalo Frasca’s “The Sims of the Oppressed.” Their incessant quibbling — excuse me, “agreeing upon the terms needed to define the conversation and knowledge itself” — is petty one-upsmanship that hasn’t yet led to anything like understanding, and is unlikely to lead to any “resource” a game developer could hope to apply. If videogame theory is leading anywhere, it’s probably toward a homegrown Sokal Affair. ( )

    The equivalent of videogame theorists in film theory would be a “researcher” who reads a few reviews of four films by John Ford (but avoids watching the films themselves), then promptly writes a book analyzing the importance of the frontier ideal in American film. Unless these “researchers” become willing to physically hold a mouse or controller and see for themselves that it is “inherently interesting and pleasurable to understand things,” it’s hard to see them formulating anything you could charitably call “basic research.”

  13. Walter Says:

    If you could only test your hypotheses of dismal unfamiliarity, failure to produce understanding, and so on, then get back to us with your results, we’d be happy to take these claims more seriously….

    At the very least, cop to the burden of proof or justification you have unwittingly shouldered, and do more than make a bunch of loud claims without even the semblance of a high school level, text-citing argument. Show, and don’t simply claim, that game studies has by and large been useless in producing understanding. Presumably you understand what a monumental task this is, even for a field as new/undeveloped as game studies.

  14. andrew Says:

    Allen, I think our differences lie in focusing on the wheat versus the chaff.

  15. Allen Varney Says:

    “At the very least, cop to the burden of proof or justification you have unwittingly shouldered, and do more than make a bunch of loud claims without even the semblance of a high school level, text-citing argument.”

    Umm, the burden of proof should presumably fall to the guy who started this by calling me mediocre, pompous, and ill-informed. Except — oh, wait — he didn’t specifically name me in that snide commentary, as a semantic analysis of his post clearly shows. How anti-intellectual of me.

  16. Patrick Says:

    I actually look foward to seeing what sort of theoretical debate and papers my work inspires, but I also take great pleasure in the irony that the authors and perpetuators of these debates will likely be much older than me.

    I think the academic/developer hybrid is exponentially more useful than either one alone. Facade is a testament to this, and I can corroborate that many texts that are impenetrable to someone not familiar with lots of 20th century philosophy and domain jargon have been incredibly useful in the research phase of my current project – a drama game. I’m actually something of this hybrid myself, since I put a lot of emphasis on theory and analysis as well as design and development, and will hopefully get credit clearance on a research/thesis paper for this fall on how autopoietic patterns shape interactive media. Of course Micheal and Andrew are PhDs, and I’ve still got a few months to go before I earn my B.A.

    Sometimes its good not to take yourself too seriously.

  17. andrew Says:

    I’m but a Masters in Computer Science, actually.

  18. Patrick Says:

    Well I’m a B.A. in Creative Writing, so I think I out limbo-ed you ;)

  19. jasonk Says:

    Hey Andrew, i think you make very good points throughout. It seems odd to me that in such a young science, there could be an expectation for widespread agreement or substantial/numerous breakthroughs. While it’s completely plausible, to expect it seems rather hard to reason. I would on the other hand expect reasonably that a science in its first many decades would be full of debate, work-towards-standards, and the drive of those involved for the lime light since the birth of a science may offer the birth of contextual fame (ie. Freud). I feel game theory is basically on track… experiencing what i would i might expect of a new science.

    The other important agreement i have with you Andrew is about a purpose of research. The way you framed the pursuite knowledge seems quite accurate. It seems to fit well with the seeming fact that the majority of human knowledge derived from study is non-applicable “useless” information. It’s purpose then, one of, certainly can be the pleasure to know, the satisfaction of quenched curiousity =)

  20. William Huber Says:


    I’m actually somwhat surprised that both you and Gonzalow even bother responding to this article. It struck me as exactly what you intimated: anti-intellectual.

    A number of ironies come to bear: as far as I understand, the author doesn’t write computer games. He designs pen-and-paper games. His authority on immersion as a feature of human-computer interaction (which, as Gonzalo pointed out, was the nominal topic of his article) is thus probably somewhat limited, vis-a-vis those designer/theorists who actually do develop games. The work that Walter referred to, Paul Dourish’s “Where the Action Is” should have been where the author started his article, but instead he found it easier to attack academics working from the humanities. It’s an easy stance to take, of course: the familiar rhetoric “hard-workin’ salt-of-the-earth speaking truth to airy-fairy eggheads in their ivory towers.” All the more reason we should be suspicious of it.

    While any kind of rigorous comment about the relationship between critical and productive spheres is far too ambitious for here, I think it bears repeating that the aim of videogame studies cannot be reduced to “the creation of better games,” any more than literary criticism can be said to be the creation of “better” novels, or art history the creation of better paintings. Understanding the artifacts, their operations as texts, their relationship to the players, the markets in which they circulate, the moment of history in which they emerge, the conditions under which they are produced, the ontologies which they reproduce and simulate, the regimes of attention which they recruit and train (and this includes immersion) are generally independent, and can even be at odds with, the problem of the making of “better” games.

  21. josh g. Says:

    Somewhat on a tangent, but I saw an interesting approach to the study of “immersion” at a ‘Cognitive Science of Games and Gameplay’ workshop at the CogSci 2006 conference a few weeks ago. The researcher (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch in my notes) was experimenting to find a quantitative, measurable effect of ‘immersion’ while playing video games.

    My first thought was that this sounded a bit far-fetched, but the results they gathered were actually pretty interesting. The initial theory was that immersion in a game would slightly impair a cognitive task done just after gameplay (with the control being a simple GUI-clicking task of the same length); that turned out to have no effect. They played with eye tracking but that didn’t seem very meaningful either. What they discovered that did seem to work, was to record body movement, posture, and facial expression. When “immersed”, body movements were drastically reduced unless they were related to the game itself (eg. moving your head to the left as your avatar tries to see around something).

    Anyway, it was interesting. The ideas themselves don’t seem ground-breaking, and seem obvious in retrospect, but keep in mind that the first concept seemed intuitively true and was disproven. And in the end, these results were something that game designers and QA could easily keep in mind as they evaluate play tests to help them make more accurate evaluations of this nebulous idea of being sucked into a game.

  22. andrew Says:

    Craig Perko has written a good rant about this too.

  23. andrew Says:

    Academic Timothy Burke at Terra Nova posted a level-headed response to the article.

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