The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Arguments that need to be weeded out of game studies: A rant

I’ve spent quite a few years of my career doing volunteer work for the budding community of game academia; as a reviewer, editor, and program chair for various conferences. Over the time, I’ve seen the field grow and mature in so many ways. Many of the young scholars exceed us oldies in rigour and knowledge and I love the way they are moving into the space. However, there are some arguments that are rare in other academic disciplines, but that creep into game scholarship in a way that that is detrimental to the discipline as a whole. It is high time that we collectively weed them out.

Thing is, there is a kind of self-confident arrogance among game players and designers that has no place in the academic study of games. It emerges from skill awareness. Game players develop extensive skills in playing their games. Poker players run statistics in their heads, Super Mario players spend hours practicing that one slide-jump-twist. Players are also objectively awarded for their skills by winning, which lets them become self-aware of their skillset in a way than most people ever get a chance to be in any other field.

Something very similar is true for game design: every game designer hones their skills in designing the precise games they build – and game design is intensely difficult. Every game design is a complex web of design decisions where any one of them can be critical. Game designer awards are not quite as closely tied to their skillset as those for players, but typically at least in the commercial world, you will look at sales figures and metacritic scores as measurements of success.

Moving into academic research, all of this of course still matters. It is important to be “well-played” if you want to be able to analyse games as text. If you want to write about game design as a practice, and even more if you want to contribute with knowledge relevant for game design, you should yourself (or your sources) be reasonably good at designing games. However, referring to these skills is not an academically valid argument. It is an argument of authority and those have absolutely no place in academia. I have seen all of the following arguments made in academic submissions.

“A way to balance skill trees / optimise weapon mods / whatever in game X” Oh, come on! Fortunately, it was a while since I saw this type of submissions to academic venues; apparently, game professors around the world are doing their job in weeding this one out already at bachelor level.

“I have played for fifteen years and the writeup is based on my knowledge.” This is much more interesting, but if you are making this argument you are doing autoethnographic work. Read up on the term and what is required in terms of self-representation and self-reflection in the text. Reflect not just on what you learn from your own extensive experience, but also on what you have NOT experienced, what are your blind spots. Connect to others’ writing about the specific game(s), argue with or against them. The fact that you have played a game forever does not mean that your account of the game, or the play practices around it, will be objectively true.

“This writeup is based on the account of X,Y,Z who are experts in the genre // were behind this hugely successful game.” Yes, we do need to value and tap into professional design knowledge. But the fact that you are starstruck by designers X, Y and Z does not make them the ultimate authorities, and neither do you become an authority by proxy by using them in your work. Methodologically, tapping into the tacit knowledge of designers is immensely difficult – the fact that a game was a commercial or critic success does not mean that its designers are good at reflecting on why. If you are going to take this approach, you need to develop your interview technique and critically reflect on what you get. You also need to either tie in to previous theory (yes, connect to literature), or if there is none, build theory from scratch. There are established approaches to the latter (hint: grounded theory). Typically, no method will allow you to just parrot the authoritative voice of your favourite designers.

“This account is based on me playing X, the most successful game in the genre/this year/on this platform.” Turning your obsession into a paper, eh? We’ve all been there. Once, game studies had a whole subfield that could have been called ‘World of Warcraft’ studies. But the fact that a game is commercially successful does not necessarily mean that it is the best candidate for a study.  You need to have a good reason for why this game deserves to be studied, what is unique about it. Games with a narrow audience might be just as interesting, so why does it matter that yours was successful?

World of Warcraft deserved to be studied because of its radical success (as the first MMOG with a massive global audience), in particular for the novel community practices that developed around the game. Other blockbuster games may deserve study because they have made radically novel design decisions that underlie their success. But some are just big, in a large landscape of similar games that are not as successful. The hype is sometimes the only thing that drives players to that particular game.

To summarise, if game studies is to be an academic field, each piece of academic work must argue for its own merits. Nobody is – or should be – impressed by references to authority.

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