the international journal of computer game research
volume 1, issue 1
July 2001
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Jesper Juul is a Ph.D. student in computer games at the IT University of Copenhagen. He holds an M.A. in Nordic Literature with a master's thesis on interactive fiction.
He co-arranged the Computer Games & Digital Textualities conference in March 2001.
He also develops chat and multiplayer games in the company

The repeatedly lost art of studying games

Review of Elliott M. Avedon & Brian Sutton-Smith (ed.): The Study of Games

New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. 1971. 530 pages.

by Jesper Juul


This is one of the rare theoretical books with "games" in the title. Its uniqueness is further enhanced by the fact that games is used, not just as a vague metaphor for idle speculation, but in a literal sense: This is a book about games, and as such it was something of a revelation to the reviewer. A revelation since it not only demonstrates that the subject of games has previously been taken seriously and, perhaps, forgotten - it also shows that this has happened once before. In 1903, W.H. Holmes reports:

The popular notion that games ... are trivial in nature and of no particular significance as a subject of research soon gave way, under the well-conducted studies of Mr. Culin, to an adequate appreciation of their importance as an integral part of human culture. (p.57)

The Culin in question is Stewart Culin, an American anthropologist and author of numerous writings on games, most famous for the 800 page Games of the North American Indians.

With contributors from anthropology, social sciences, psychology, the military, and play theory, as well as covering the period from 1879 to 1971, the word multidisciplinary does not suffice to describe the breadth of this book. As with many other multidisciplinary and anthological endeavours, the reader is best off by immediately abandoning any hope of seeing the collected articles combine in some kind of unified focus or method: The articles do not really talk to each other.

The Study of Games is one of a set of two books, the other being Child's Play (1997). It consists of twenty-three articles and numerous bibliographies, categorised in three main areas: The History and Origins of Games, The Usage of Games, and Structure and Function. The first part demonstrates how games have primarily been examined in anthropology and folklore studies. The survey of the diffusion of Mancala and its variations in search for origins as demonstrated by Culin's article Mancala, the National game of Africa (1894) is a huge effort in game scholarship that also documents the problematic but historically important idea that games have singular origins and may be appears somewhat dated and slightly futile, but it does document some historically important notions of games, such as the idea that games are remnants of lost rituals and ceremonies. The usage of games provides both discussions of games as recreation as well as a more utilitaristic focus, with articles covering military simulations (and the history of using games for military training), education, and therapy. Structure and Function finally points in two directions, one being basically two articles on the categorisation of games, and one being more oriented towards the role of games: The often discussed perspective of games in the child development is also explored here.

Development & psychology

The reviewer's favourite play and game theorist is Brian Sutton-Smith, who in addition to co-editing the volume is also author and co-author of several articles included. In The Kissing games of adolescents in Ohio (1959), Sutton-Smith's works with a pretty clear method: He interviews a selection of high school and college students about what games they have played that involved kissing. Some twenty different games are described and a survey tells us what age groups mostly play what games. A historical perspective is provided as Sutton-Smith notes that earlier in the 20th century, children tended to play games centred on marriage and courtship rituals, whereas the kissing games appear more recent. finally Finally he moves to more general considerations of games:

Although, the role of games in development cannot be dealt with fully here, the general position taken is that a game performs something of a bridge function in development. It allows for the expression of given impulses but at the same time safeguards the players by putting limits on the way in which those impulses can be expressed. (p.213-214)

The question raised here, that of games' role in the development of children and adolescents is one that may be interesting. Sutton-Smith has covered this perspective much better in The Ambiguity of Play (1997) where he describes the idea of playing as children's preparation for adult life as one of seven rhetorics on play.

In Norman Reider's dogmatic but curiously compelling article Chess, Oedipus, and the Mater Dolorosa (1959), the history of chess is examined in a psychoanalytical perspective. Chess has been described as connected to virtue and art of the intellect (the latter is probably the common attitude today) and as a dangerous and idle habit. Chess has been assigned great importance, and its origins has have consequently been the subject of much speculation. The article counts twenty-four legends about the origin of chess, one of which tells of Evil-Merodach who killed his father, after which sages created chess to cure his madness. This is clearly gefundenes Fressen for the Freudian Reider, who mostly in the legends and partly in the game sees the theme of patricide, and proposes:

It may even be argued that the fact that women in general find no fascination in chess is explained in the psychological event that they have no need for father-murder. (p.460)

Definitions, categories, and parameters

In the opening chapter, the editors discuss the state of game definitions: It is generally customary for writers on play and games to first describe their elusive character, discuss the impossibility of defining the terms, only to then use them freely and suggestively, indicating that there is after all some meaning attached to the words. Likewise, Avedon and Sutton-Smith first discuss the general problems of defining, but do try to come up with definitions: Play is an exercise of voluntary control systems, games are an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome. The play definition is very loose and somehow less than useful. While the game definition is not the end-all of game definitions, it may be saying something; the question is what it says. It does demonstrate the problems of making clear definitions: Is it a heuristic for telling games from non-games, or is it more of a qualitative description of common characteristics? No matter, such definitions will always border on the tautological since they also have to describe the range of objects that are covered by the definition.

Also clearly demonstrated is the impulse towards categorisation, the modern tradition of which may begin with Culin's division of American Indian games into games of chance and games of dexterity (with further subdivisions). In 1960, R.C. Bell provides a division of board games into race games, war games, and positional games, Mancala games, dice games, and domino games. Neither makes much lasting impression.

A variant of categorisation is the search for parameters to describe how games vary from each other. In E.M. Avedon's article The Structural Elements of Games, games are said to consider the following elements: 1) purpose of the game, 2) procedure for action, 3) rules governing action, 4) number of required participants, 5) roles of participants, 6) results or pay-off, 7) abilities and skills required for action, 8) interaction patterns, 9) physical setting and environmental requirements, 10) required equipment.

This also fails to be entirely convincing. Can we tell the interaction patterns from the role of the participants? Is equipment a bit imprecise since many games (such as Checkers or Mancala) can be played with whatever objects are at hand? Couldn't it be argued that the pay-off (such as money) is rather something you can apply to every game? Is chess the same game whether it is played for money or not? Or isn't it? Perhaps the impulse towards categorisation is matched by an equally strong urge to deconstruct categories.

Thinking about the present day situation, the impulse towards categories is equally strong when it comes to computer games, but it works in a slightly different way: When working with computer games, the problem is that the researcher cannot claim originality in having created categories since every self-respecting game magazine or website is doing the same. Perhaps traditional games have lasted longer and developed more slowly than computer games, so the need for categories has not been that great and this leaves more room for the categorising theorist.

Are we studying games yet?

The renewed interest in games these days, specifically as computer games, may be due to a change in object status. First of all, computer games are played on screens, and screens somehow send the right signals; there is some consensus that what happens on a screen is worthy of scholarly interest. Secondly, most computer games are mass-produced and commercially published, and are as such quotable objects that can be listed as references, developers and publishers included.

The book eventually suffers from the problem that even though it covers games for young and old in a large historical and cultural perspective, almost all references to adults playing games concern other cultures (Mancala) or other historical periods (Golf in 15th century Ireland) than that of the writers. We can hardly fault the editors for this, but perhaps it reflects a continued reluctance to admit that even adults, and even adults in our culture, play games.

Looking at the distribution of the contributions, it occurs to me that the weak representation of more aesthetic angles is due to the fact that the aesthetic institutions and methods at least on some level have to admit that the scholar him or herself is taken to looking at art, reading novels, listening to music, or watching movies, and as such is a consumer (in a broader sense) of whatever is being studied. Hence the object of study is "games we play". The social sciences, The the anthropology study, the folklore study, or the psychological study can all afford a detached outside perspective - games they play, and are thus less susceptible to criticisms of being unserious.

As the editors describe it, game studies flourished during the last two decades of the 20th century. The second wave of game research could possibly be ascribed to The Study of Games. The introduction states:

As important new research begins in such matters as the cognitive implications of play, the sociology of sport, simulations in education, and interaction behavior, it is vital that researchers and students have easy access to some of the major historical and current information on the study of games, and of play. (p.1)

As such, the current trend of (computer) games gaining acceptance may be the third wave of game studies, one that now needs to collect the scattered writing on games.

While the computer game predates the book by some ten years, it was obviously not a popular phenomenon at the time, and is not mentioned. (Except for a brief reference to military use of computers in simulations.) Still, The Study of games by way of its multiple angles on games can be used for seeing the computer game in a broader historical perspective, for learning previous game research, and as inspiration for new ways of studying them. As such, it is an invaluable resource.


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Avedon, Elliott M.; Sutton-Smith, Brian (ed.): The Study of Games. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1971.


Herron, R. E.; Sutton-Smith, Brian (ed.): Child's Play. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1971.


Sutton-Smith, Brian: The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1997.


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