With no particular claims for completeness, some impressions from the DiGRA 2005 conference (insert caveats here):
T.L. Taylor‘s opened the conference with a very methodologically oriented keynote arguing that video games should be examined in their situated context (I was taking paper notes at the time, so the phrasing may have been different). As a prime example, trains in Everquest (a player being followed by a large number of monsters) is something that is constantly negotiated – what is a train; what a train means, etc… can only be understood as the meaning the player community assigns to a train.
This was the opening shot in what I think was the main issue of the conference – what are we / should we be studying?
Janet Murray‘s Friday keynote (available here) discussed two different things.
First, she proposed The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies, where she described a “formalist” school of “game essentialism”, of which I seem to play some part:
Because the game essentialists want to privilege formalistic approaches above all others, they are willing to dismiss many salient aspects of the game experience, such as the feeling of immersion, the enactment of violent or sexual events, the performative dimension of game play, and even the personal experience of winning and losing.
A few different things here:
1) It is true that there is a certain school of thought that dismisses all representation in games as irrelevant fluff. I have written a short history that idea in my upcoming book, and I also discussed it in my DiGRA paper this year (see below). I was not the target of this criticism, but I am guilty as charged anyway. I have written much on fiction in games since then though.
2) But Murray is wrong to assume that her position is the only one that discusses the experience of playing games. I have certainly written about the experience of winning and losing in my 2003 DiGRA paper.
3) Interestingly enough, some of the earlier criticism against excessive use of narratology (see Thomas Pavel’s book Fictional Worlds) describes narratology as problematic because it focuses on the alleged formal properties of a text at the expense of referentiality, experience etc… Some historic reversals here.
Celia Pearce offered peace. I am for peace. More at Greg Costikyan’s blog.
But I also think I share a basic focus with Celia.
Formalism & essentialism
Thoughout the conference, and during the final discussion, it seemed like quite a few researchers saw themselves as working against the dual enemies of formalism and essentialism (bad). The preferred alternative was looking at games as situated (good).
Now, what does this mean?
Let’s say formalism means looking at the base properties of a medium: Saying that “games have rules” is arguably a formalism, but only on the same level as saying that “music consists of sounds”, “novels consists of words”, or “cinema consists of moving images and sounds”. I am not terribly impressed with any theory that prevents us from making such basic observations.
By any count, Janet Murray is a formalist thinker about media – consider her list of the four properties of digital environments as “procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic”. I have no issue with this – these are not the only things we can say about digital environments, but this list does in no way prevent her from making broader and deeper observations.
If the only thing we could say about games was that they have rules, that wouldn’t work either – but hey, nobody actually said this! The issue here is probably whether we accept that the same thing can be described in several complementary ways, or whether we think there should be one and only one way of describing games.
Essentialism is a bit more tricky, since the term is usually associated with shallow (and politically suspect) assumptions of there being some core idea that constitutes, say, femininity, African-Americanness or the character of the Danish people. OK.
But it just doesn’t work too well when discussing aesthetic phenomena – saying that “action movies center on action”, “love stories focus on love”, or “sashimi is raw fish” are technically also essentialist statements – being afraid of saying such things is not going to get us anywhere.
Why does Mario have Three Lives
My own talk was at an angle of my original abstract, and discussed why and when we accept game incoherent game fictions. The basic question was this: Why does Mario have three lives?
Answered like this: When we experience fictional worlds, we fill out the blanks using what Marie-Laure Ryan calls “The principle of minimal departure”. When something unexplained happens in a fiction, we try to come up with the simplest explanation we can. In Donkey Kong, we could technically argue that Mario has three lives because Donkey Kong is a Hinduist game with reincarnation. But in actuality, players (the ones I have asked) explain the three lives with reference to the rules of the game: “Those are the rules”, “otherwise it would be too hard”. This happens in quite a few games: Many things in games are very hard to understand with reference to the game fiction. In these cases, we explain the game events with reference to the game rules.
The big unanswered question is when and how we accept this, and when it feels like a jarring contradiction.
I think this will become a written paper in the near future.
Aesthetic Thought vs. the Study of Players
Ludology vs. Narratology is only skin deep. The actual conflict is between 1) considering games as an aesthetic art forms that we can design and discuss intersubjectively in first-person perspective and 2) considering games via a third-person perspective, observing people playing games.
I see no reason why we can’t do both, and I am sure that everybody will happily agree on this. At the final discussion, people seemed to agree that we should be methodologically inclusive, but are we?