the international journal of computer game research
volume 2, issue 1
July 2002
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Espen Aarseth is Associate Professor in Humanistic Informatics at the University of Bergen.
His best-known book is
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997).
Aarseth has studied computer games since 1984. He is the founder of the Digital Arts and Culture annual series of international conferences (1998 -), and has directed the Lingo project at the University of Bergen (1997-2000), using and developing MOOs for language learning.

The Dungeon and the Ivory Tower: Vive La Difference ou Liaison Dangereuse?

by Espen Aarseth, Editor-in-Chief


Sim University

Here is an idea for a strategy game:

"You are a young professor who just got tenure at Calisota State University. Your objective is to establish a program in computer games within three years. You can play the role of Humanist, Computer Scientist, Visual Artist/Designer, Social Scienctist, Psychologist, or choose a hybrid background. Within each breed, several subclasses (eg. sociologist, linguist, film theorist) are available. Against you are the Public, the University Board of Directors, the Funding organizations, your department colleagues, Politicians, your computer lab admins, and one or two alien monster races. As allies you have undergraduates and industry designers. Neutrals: The gaming press.  Your job is to create a multidisciplinary task force (you will have to convert members of the opposing factions to be successful), gather and balance resources, forge alliances and battle the aliens (the easy part). A secret deathmatch level is included to help your credibility with the undergrads and increase morale. Confrontations with the Board of Directors are not playable, but shown through cut scenes only. Unfortunately the game rules are not fully documented or debugged; please register online for an update soon."


This game actually exists, and is played right now in several universities. However, many players are still waiting for cheats and walkthroughs.


The Roads Ahead

If 2001 was the year of beginnings and optimism in the game studies field, 2002 might be the year for reflections and strategic thinking. As beginnings go, 2001 was a success: it was the year we could finally imagine and conceptualize a new academic field focused on the aesthetics, cultures and technologies of computer games. Not just as part of media studies, or digital culture studies, or a freaky corner of computer science, or as educational technology, but as an autonomous discipline of teaching and research, with an agenda not subjected to the rules of a condescending (or hostile) established academic field. From the shadows of various academic departments, and from the busy cubicles of the games industry, we got together to share dreams and celebrate the field's potential in numerous conferences, research project applications, journal articles (let's not forget the gaming magazines!) and books.

Now it is time to plan for the future, say, the next ten to twenty years. In other words, the initial fun is over, and the real fun is just beginning. Last year was the year of conferencing; this is the year of organization building.

Building a discipline from scratch is really hard. You have to excel in research (or nobody will take your ideas seriously), you have to excel in local politics (or nobody will fund you), and you have to excel in creating a curriculum (or nobody will learn anything from you). Manage all three, and you should rightly expect people to worship you, since you must be, for all practical purposes, a god. Or at least somebody worthy of a spot on Oprah. 

Luckily for game studies, there is help to be had. At the recent Game Developer's Conference in San José (better known as Silicon Valley), organized by IGDA (the International Game Developers Association), a two-day Academic Summit was held, and attended by almost 150 people from academic institutions and the gaming industry. At the summit, the IGDA's Education Committee presented their "curriculum framework" , a detailed document listing the many disciplines and subfields (the topic list alone is eight pages long) which could or should be included in a games program.  This is not a cut and dried description of the perfect program, but rather a flexible cookbook which could be used to select elements and compose programs that are tailor-made to an individual institution's strengths, needs and visions. The IGDA framework also makes for a very useful reality checklist for academic entrepreneurs who want to join the game teaching bandwagon without the necessary resources and grounding in reality. And while the framework is geared towards training professionals for the industry rather than meeting the needs of game researchers and academics, it provides a great bridge for meaningful dialogue between the two groups. Its value for academics with ambitions to set up a program cannot be overestimated.

Both at the Summit and at similar congregations these days one is struck by the friendly and constructive (nay, idyllic!) dialogue between such supposedly unlikely partners as professors and game designers. At first sight, it could look as though the industry and the academic game researchers face a rosy future together. And of course, the mutual benefits of practical cooperation are many: academics gain greater insight into the creative processes; the industry benefits from the results of long-term research and receives long overdue recognition as an important and unique part of the arts&entertainment sector. Together, they reinforce each other's credibility to society at large. And both get candidates: the academics to teach; the industry to employ. So what could go wrong with this liaison?

Maybe not much. The natural differences between the two species and their habitats will ensure that one partner will not dominate the other. At the moment, the industry is so much bigger, both demographically and economically, that the academic side seems infinitesimal and even unimportant. This may change (hopefully), and with a few decades of concerted and better-funded basic research the academic side may eventually start to make a real impact. (Stranger things have happened!)

True romance or not, let's face it: the cultures, goals and motivations of the two groups are intrinsically different. Research is (or should be) long-term, altruistic, slow, critical. The industry is (or should be) profit-oriented, competitive (in the closed sense), cutting-edge, artistic. Perhaps we only have one thing in common: an interest in the nature of games (and on both sides some of us might not even have that). Of course, there are Leonardos among us that happen to play one role but could play (and sometimes plays) the other role equally well, but they are a very small subset, and statistically insignificant.

Here is the catch: The industry only wants to make a certain kind of game: games that people spend money on. It sees games as a kind of product, or as a sellable service. In other words, if you can't sell it, it is a waste of time. It could even be detrimental: A game that cannot make money but is immensely popular makes it harder to make money on other games, since there would be less incentive to buy them, and less time to play them.  In this regard, there has always been a crucial difference between games and other sectors of the entertainment market: A great movie, novel or comic book will create a hunger for more, but a great game such as chess, poker or Counter-Strike will make you play it over and over, and consequently buy and play other games much less. Chess has survived 3000 years; the only reason we are not playing much Doom deathmatch anymore is that virtually the same game is constantly improved and renamed.  The success of a Tolkien makes the success of a Terry Brooks more likely, while the success of one groundbreaking fps multiplayer platform will make the competition less popular. How many The Sims clones are you going to buy? How many MMRPGs do you invest your time in? 

As game scholars, we are (or should be) dedicated to understanding all games, not just the ones that sell. To us, games are not products but communicative practice. The games people play are (or should be) more important to us than the games people buy.

Quake III is not a game, it is a technology for spawning countless games with little passages, all alike/different. Games are not like books or TV episodes; they are like TV channels or operating systems. Or they used to be. The magic word is of course content. If games contain different, disposable content, people will want different games. This may explain the industry's obsession with narratives; if games can be more like novels (play through once, buy another) people will buy more games.

Should academics help the industry to change the nature of gaming in this way, from a zero-sum game to a play for big bucks? Perhaps such a change will be good, since individual games would be less addictive? The ethics of game research is a huge and hugely underdeveloped field.  This is one shortcoming academia shares with the industry, and an area we could and should explore together.



What's up with Game Studies?

First of all: Thanks for asking! Almost a year has gone by since our first issue, and during that time we have received a large number of mails from readers.  The response has been overwhelming, and it has been very encouraging and rewarding to see so much interest in this journal. Thank you all very much!

As time has gone by, some people have wondered (perhaps worried) about when the next issue was to appear.  Well, it is finally here. We did announce (an act that in hindsight can only be described as gross naiveté) that Game Studies would be published 3-4 times a year. Hopefully, soon it will. But a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal moves at its own pace, and it takes time to become established. Superficially, scholarship may look like other kinds of publishing like journalism or blogging, but it is slow, and should be looked at in terms of decades, not months or weeks. We're not exactly Wired or Slashdot. Scholarly journals depend on the quantity and quality of submitted research, and of a body of scholars who takes the time to think and write. Publishing is only one goal of a journal like this; the other is critical feedback to researchers. And here it is very satisfying to report that we have a wonderful corps of very competent and dedicated peer reviewers, who have provided submitters with long, detailed responses, sometimes several thousand words. This is a service that is largely invisible, but it is probably just as valuable as the visible parts of the journal. The editors and reviewers of Game Studies are providing a great service, and I am grateful and proud of their efforts. If you are a games researcher working on an article, you know what to do.

The idea of a scholarly journal on games is still unfamiliar to many. (Some of the reactions we got were pretty hilarious...) What kind of bird is this? Well, Game Studies is a scholarly journal first, and a game journal second. It is not a gamers' web site, it is an academic journal that happens to be on the web. We serve the academic world, and follow its rules. But we also want to be accessible and readable to the public. Your continued feedback will help us reach both these goals. Thanks!


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