On Academia

The nice thing about a blog is that you can just link to someone else’s words instead of having to do any heavy lifting yourself. It is even nicer when the someone else in question is a good friend and when the topic he writes about is an important one.

Which leads me to Mark Barrett’s critique of video game academia.

Here’s the thing. Noah Wardrip-Fruin (one of the people behind Grand Text Auto) and Pat Harrigan have co-edited a book called “First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game”, a collection of essays on electronic literature. (For Greg Costikyan’s rant on the term ‘electronic literature’, go here.)

Then Noah asked Mark to respond to the essays in the Cyberdrama section. And he did. In the process, he has articulated exactly what bothers me about the current vogue for video game academia – specifically, the humanistic, non-vocational side.

To wit: the majority of video game academic output that I’ve seen is just not about making better games, and therefore I find it completely useless, if not worse.

For such a statement to have more credibility than a mere rant on some random guy’s blog somewhere, it must be buttressed by reasonable arguments and careful reasoning, and this is exactly what Mark has done:

In college I took a run at academic criticism, including semiotics. I spent time studying films and writing them, studying fiction and writing short stories, and studying theater and writing plays. The most surprising thing I learned in my criticism classes was that most of the people sitting in the chairs beside me had no interest in making anything. They were there to learn how to talk about the medium they loved, not how to better create in the medium they loved.

What is not clear to me even now is whether [establishing the mature language of discourse that has so far evaded the more transient commercial industry] is the specific intent of Murray’s essay [“From Game-Story to Cyberdrama”], or whether she really does mean to go beyond language to questions of craft and technique. If academics are going to be helpful in solving the interactive storytelling problem, they need to be explicit about their intent, exhaustive in their historical analysis and rigorous with their language. The danger in failing to do so is not simply that confusion will arise, but that academia will perpetuate the reinvention of the wheel among the transient student populations in the same way these issues have reappeared a number of times in the transient commercial industry. And from where I sit, as a creator, the last thing any of us needs is another generation of designers thinking they’re getting in on the ground floor of the interactive storytelling problem when they’re not.

Like Mark, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to spend their brief time in this vale of tears as they see fit, and the video game academics I’ve met all tend to be nice, smart people. But still: what’s the use? How are you advancing the boundaries of the medium? Why would you want to do anything else? Tell me – I honestly don’t get it.

To add insult to injury: I’m afraid many people who are interested in thinking about games will assume, as I once did, that video game academia has some merit [towards making better interactive entertainment], and try and wrestle with it, to understand what is going on there, to try to apply what they’ve learned to the actual making of interactive entertainment. Sadly, there are probably more productive ways to try to make better games. So not only is video game academia not trying to advance the medium: it may actually waste the time and energy of those who are.

Update: Less than 24 hours after posting this, I come across the book “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” by James Paul Gee, obliging me to add a qualifier to my statements above. I can see the use of studying video games in the context of some other field. However, this still leaves a broad field of academic endeavors on games that leave me baffled, and I don’t think Sturgeon’s Law can fully explain that.

Update 2: Here are some more reactions to this post:

I’ve added a qualifier to my closing statement above. I’m glad there have been many interesting and thoughtful comments so far.

Comments 26

  1. Aubrey wrote:

    Some of this is ringing true: JP and I tend to send academic/bloggy articles back and forth, and it doesn’t take us long to figure out that what is being said is a restatement, or just wrong.

    It’s really not just academic papers that this applies to. It’s all articles. It’s just Sturgeon’s law.

    The antithesis of academia’s supposed mulling over the state-of-the-now is Gamasutra, which tends to have “practical” papers, but they generally boil down to “this worked for me, so assume I’m right”, which is dangerous – you can’t put design knowledge in pill form, and certainly no pill based on circumstantial evidence is of very much use to anyone. At the same time, there are a few Gamasutra articles I’ve loved, but they basically come down to tips and tricks rather than casting light on fundamental truths in game design, and showing their useful application.

    I think it’s all about the flax and the chaff. It’s as simple as that. Worthwhile reads should be linked in blogs. Bad ones should be ignored. Darwinism, data-style.

    It takes a great deal of effort to get an article done, so it’s important to take a step back and ask “is this in any way helpful?” – something I’ve only learnt how to do recently (yes, this is me back tracking on all the articles I’ve ever written ;) ). The problem is, people just want to be heard, even if (and especially when) they have nothing to say.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 11:08
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    You make a good point regarding Sturgeon’s Law.

    Also, by no means do I want to give the impression that I think the industry is a great place for thinking of and making better games.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 11:44
  3. Aubrey wrote:

    Heh.

    The industry as a giant meta-tangle of juxtiposed agendas, sure. The people within it are still pushing forward, though. I think a few are doing well despite the industry (or academia), rather than because of it.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 15:07
  4. Jesper wrote:

    Mark Barrett picks up one article, and from this he extrapolates to all academic video game theory, all the time. Well.

    Academics cater to several different audiences. To other academics, to the general public (perhaps), and to the industry (perhaps).

    As for interactive storytelling, many academics (myself included) have spent a lot of time analyzing why it is a hard problem, and why so many historical attempts have failed to miserably. And we are many people who try to help students tackle more productive issues. And some of us even like to do stuff and have actually done so, if on smaller scales than full-time industry people.

    I think that occasionally, just occasionally, we do get it right. But you may need to look for it.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 16:32
  5. helen wrote:

    I would argue that Mark is just plain wrong that academics have nothing to do with the advancement of a medium. This advancement is potentially enriched by academics on a number of levels:-
    1. by even choosing to write about, teach and pay attention to a specific medium they work against dominant discourses which ‘marginalise’ ‘demonise’ or dismiss any given medium – and this particular function has a VERY long and important history.

    2. By writing about the medium they contribute a great deal to the potential meanings, issues and frameworks which might be applied to the medium – thus opening up a field which might appear quite closed, autonomous and potentially rather self-determining.

    3. By choosing to teach the study of games we participate in the creation of an audience that has other points of access for understanding their own pleasures and the opportunity to inspire more (and a potentially broader group of) people to get engaged with the medium.

    4. For me personally and my own research into ‘grrl gamerz’ this is entirely motivated by an intention to stick my oar in to the industry on a number of levels. To critique and hopefully therefore broaden and develop the way in which the industry itself conceptualises its audience. To circumvent the predominance of uncritical, unreflexive and frankly outdated models of ‘gender’ which are at play in industry discourse about a ‘female’ audience? Yeah like all girls and all women are the same – my eye! this kind of assumption has been well and truely kicked into touch in other media spheres. The other political part of my own research is that I understand that actually a playful engagement with technology (and computer games are the par excellence eg of this) enables a familiarity with and facility with technology that might actually help get more girls and women to aspire to taking part in forms of creative production (and consumption) around technology. This includes therefore those who dont get turned on by ‘pink games’ and who are also deeply turned off by the current marketing/selling/locations of games.

    I totally dont agree with this increasingly dominant way of conceptualising the ‘use value’ of academic work.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 17:14
  6. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    >>Mark Barrett picks up one article, and from this he extrapolates to all academic video game theory, all the time.

    No, sorry, I’m afraid I must take credit for the unfair generalizations. Mark was just reacting to Janet Murray’s essay.

    >>Academics cater to several different audiences. To other academics, to the general public (perhaps), and to the industry (perhaps)

    That makes sense. But what are they trying to achieve?

    >>I think that occasionally, just occasionally, we do get it right.

    I believe you – I did add many qualifiers to my rant, you know.

    >>But you may need to look for it.

    I could use some help :)

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 17:16
  7. Mark Barrett wrote:

    >> Mark Barrett picks up one article, and from this he extrapolates to all academic video game theory, all the time. Well. << Jesper reads one article by Mark Barrett, and from this he extrapolates to all of the reading Mark may or may not have done. Well.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 17:50
  8. Damion Schubert wrote:

    I’m not deep into the storytelling academia, but the far too much of the academia I’ve seen on massively multiplayer game design has been worthless.

    Almost all of the academia that is good comes from someone who has been in the industry on some level. In our field, I will always read something that Raph Koster, Richard Bartle, or Matt Mihaly writes, because they have the context of experience (and I disagree with all frequently). As Mark wrote, there’s nothing more frustrating than an ambitious college student starting from ground zero and calling us idiots, when we have decades of experience to draw from.

    Edward Castranova is the primary exception to the rule. His stuff is always good. Not always practically usable, but always thought-provoking.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 19:47
  9. Jesper wrote:

    >>Mark Barrett picks up one article, and
    >>from this he extrapolates to all academic
    >>video game theory, all the time.

    >Well. Jesper reads one article by Mark Barrett,
    >and from this he extrapolates to all of the
    >reading Mark may or may not have done.
    >Well.

    Well. OK. That was unfair, but your response could lead the reader to believe that all academics (all the time) were completely uninterested in ever making anything, and simply blindly recycling old discussions. No?

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 20:34
  10. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Helen,

    thanks for your detailed comments.

    >>I would argue that Mark is just plain wrong that academics have nothing to do with the advancement of a medium. This advancement is potentially enriched by academics on a number of levels

    Mark didn’t quite put it as broadly as that, but OK. When you say that the advancement of the medium is potentially enriched, that still implies academics are really working towards other purposes, and I am curious what those purposes are.

    >> 1. by even choosing to write about, teach and pay attention to a specific medium they work against dominant discourses which ‘marginalise’ ‘demonise’ or dismiss any given medium – and this particular function has a VERY long and important history.

    This is a good point, but it seems an indirect effect at best. It does not mean that academic effort is aimed at improving the medium.

    >>2. By writing about the medium they contribute a great deal to the potential meanings, issues and frameworks which might be applied to the medium – thus opening up a field which might appear quite closed, autonomous and potentially rather self-determining.

    I interpret this as: thinking about games in different ways broadens the mind. And I agree: it’s important to test assumptions and to have a broad set of points of view to work with. However, again, this seems an indirect effect.

    >> 3. By choosing to teach the study of games we participate in the creation of an audience that has other points of access for understanding their own pleasures and the opportunity to inspire more (and a potentially broader group of) people to get engaged with the medium.

    Hmm…. I think you’re talking about looking at games in different ways, am I right?

    >>4. For me personally and my own research into ‘grrl gamerz’ this is entirely motivated by an intention to stick my oar in to the industry on a number of levels.

    Bravo! I think more women should be involved in the making and playing of games, so that we can get rid of bad cliches such as ‘grrl gamerz’, as you say. There are many assumptions in the industry that could do with a good shake-up.

    >>The other political part of my own research is that I understand that actually a playful engagement with technology (and computer games are the par excellence eg of this) enables a familiarity with and facility with technology that might actually help get more girls and women to aspire to taking part in forms of creative production (and consumption) around technology. This includes therefore those who dont get turned on by ‘pink games’ and who are also deeply turned off by the current marketing/selling/locations of games.

    That sounds like a worthy goal.

    >>I totally dont agree with this increasingly dominant way of conceptualising the ‘use value’ of academic work.

    Here I’m not quite following you. I wasn’t questioning the ‘use value’ of academic work, but its purpose, and how or if this purpose stands in relation to the purpose of making better interactive entertainment.

    Posted 13 Dec 2004 at 20:54
  11. andrew stern wrote:

    Hi all, a few quick comments to throw in here

    Jurie wrote, “what are they trying to achieve?”

    This is easy to answer. Academic game studies folk are trying to understand how videogames function, by analyzing them. That is, what exactly is happening when someone plays a game? On the one hand, it seems simple to answer, and perhaps a waste of time to over analyze? But actually they’re finding it’s pretty complicated, which is interesting. They’re trying to understand what games are made of, what they are, how they are the same and different as non-digital games, how they are the same and different as stories. Etc. It takes a surprising amount of work and thought to articulate all the subtlety here. These things should be at least indirectly useful to developers, sometimes directly useful. No?

    Like with anything, some of the stuff that gets written simply won’t do a good job answering the above questions; so look to the good stuff, try to ignore the stuff that falls short. That’s what I do.

    Mark, a couple of years ago I found your site and its wealth of great essays, particularly about interactive story, and have been meaning to react to them in a blog post for a while now. You’ve articulated a lot of useful ideas really well. So naturally I was disappointed last June when I read your comments about Janet Murray’s essay in First Person. Now’s a good time to finally respond to that a bit.

    In your essay, you wrote:
    “as someone who has been wrestling with the issue of interactive storytelling for close to a decade, I can say with certainty that many of the issues Murray raises have already been encountered in the commercial interactive entertainment industry. My concern with Murray’s article is that she does not reference this considerable history in her own discussion.”

    Later you wrote,
    “in order to define and promote new terms such as agency, we need to be clear about the concepts upon which those new terms are predicated.”

    What galled me about that was that you must not have read Janet’s 1997 book, Hamlet on the Holodeck. Back in 1997, and I think still to this date 7 years later, that book is perhaps the finest and most thorough exploration of the history of the pursuit of creating interactive stories — looking carefully at the work of game designers, artists, writers and researchers. She’s the last academic you should accuse of being unaware of the history of game design, especially in regards to interactive story. Furthermore, the book goes into great detail about the term agency, and it was that book that really brought the term into use among those studying interactivity, and even in use among some game developers. Witness Doug Church’s recent use of the term in a Gamasutra interview:
    http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20041123/hall_01.shtml
    (and our followup discussion over the confusion about the term by some readers) :
    http://grandtextauto.gatech.edu/2004/11/24/links-not-to-be-missed/#comments

    Janet’s essay did not recapitulate her book’s definition of the term agency in her essay; there was no room to. Should it have? To some extent, reading academic essays can require reading up on the academic’s previous work. Perhaps this is an unreasonable requirement for game developers wishing to gain useful info from academic game studies; admittedly it takes a lot of time to keep up with all the writing being produced. (Note Janet does not use highfalutin jargon in her writing; her writing is among the most accesible of all academics I’ve read.)

    One more link to throw in here — I recently had a lengthy discussion with a game developer about interactive story (I too am a full-time developer, but one who has done some academic research and who blogs alongside academics), and our discussion eventually turned into a debate over the stance that academics / critics of games sometimes take towards game design, and usefulness of what they have to say, or not. Towards the end of the thread, Espen Aarseth, who leads a prominent academic group, had this to say about the role of game studies.
    http://grandtextauto.gatech.edu/2004/11/20/keeping-it-real/#comment-6402
    (The comments may or not make perfect sense without reading the discussion above it. But if they do, also scroll down a bit to read more comments from game studies academic Barry Atkins.)

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 0:30
  12. nick wrote:

    To agree with Jesper, I feel like reemphasizing that “video game academia” is not one single thing that you can somehow insult, like “the Virtual Boy,” “Shaq-Fu,” or “your mom.” I have a hard time imagining any critique that could apply to both Michael Mateas’s Ph.D. dissertation on the development of Facade and Barry Atkins’s More than a Game, unless it’s some kind of general Luddite comment about how computers are evil.

    Jurie, I think when you wrote “what’s the use?” that you were actually questioning the “use value” of academic work.

    Some people work in laboratories and try to find a cure for AIDS. Other people track the spread of AIDS and try to figure out, using demographic and sociological techniques, what factors cause the disease to spread the way it does. Other people look at how the legal and health care systems treat people with AIDS, or how they are represented in the popular press and in literature and the media, and what that means for them and the cultures in which they live. You could just as easily turn to all of these people who aren’t in the first group and say “You could be trying to find a cure for AIDS! Why would you want to do anything else? Tell me – I honestly don’t get it.”

    There are some people studying video games who just don’t care — directly — about how to help video game creators. Some of them care about how video games are transforming our culture, whether we should ban them because they cause violent behavior, whether they are a form of speech and can be protected as such, what they tell us about literacy, what they tell us about youth culture or geek culture or the media industry, etc.

    It’s fine for Mark to say “this essay by Janet Murray isn’t useful to me” after some editors ask him to write something about it. But there will of course be plenty of interesting work that, as far as developers are concerned, will be of no use, of very indirect use, of glancing relevance, of use only for inspiration or provocation, etc., and academics won’t always (or perhaps ever) be able to tell developers which category their own scholarship fits into.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 0:59
  13. robin wrote:

    Defining our vocabulary is always the primary step in these discussions. In small groups, it’s common practice to look for nods of approval (or furrowed brows) and fill in where necessary. Here in the blogosphere, it is not so easy.

    I always enjoy reading these threads – especially when so many friends and colleagues are gathered around the campfire. But I feel that they are, primarily, an exercise in vocabulary excavation. Sometimes there is a ‘sharing’ or ‘expanding’ of our words, definitions and positions… but it is rare.

    Misunderstandings are to be expected when the field is so young… I’m not asking for instant clarification. However, even the term “academic” causes a stir in my mind, standing alternately for “theorist”, “researcher”, “practitioner”, “artist” and even “developer” in the cases of Doug or Raph. As such, any statement about “what academics contribute” seems pretty hard to clarify – without a lot of backchannel/background discussion. Andrew’s post and Helen’s post are valiant attempts…

    I find myself increasingly frustrated with the bandwidth of these discussions – and the speed with which they flame up, turn over, and die. Yet peer-review journals are expensive and slow, while publications such as Game Developer produce ever-narrower (and arguably limited) reading (as Aubry pointed out earlier in the thread).

    Do these open forums bleed energy from what could be rigorous, well-reasoned debate? So many can say so much, so quickly – with so much conviction. They often touch on disparate fields, extending or building upon relatively advanced arguments. In the aftermath, how can one possibly find the time and energy to dig out the background reading? Even as the dialog within pockets of our community grows, I fear it alienates potential readers and participants.

    In response to Jesper’s call to arms, Jurie stated the above quite plainly: “I could use some help”. We (developers, researchers, theorists, artists and interactive media practitioners) all could, I think.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 1:31
  14. helen wrote:

    to maybe weigh in once more. I would want to suggest that it is precisely the ‘use value’ or ‘instrumental’ issues which seem to be being highlighted. yet a case in point. i work in an department that teaches theory and practices (in fact my own academic background was entirely premised on the notion that I could choose to be either a practitioner or something else on the periphery and to this day I dont exclude the possibility of once more being identiifed as a ‘practitioner’.) so i was ‘brought up’ properly in an exciting environment where this boundary was never an issue UNTIL i started to work as an academic (a different incarnation entirely to that of a student!) but even then my inclinations drew me to practice/theory collaborations – to trying to bridge this divide etc and I believe (perhaps wrongly) that I have actually helped practitioners to develop there work in areas previously unthought of (maybe in a tiny way that does not register in the main stream but I register the contribution and so have the practitioners).. I feel to separate us out in this way – to reify (or imagine as ‘just one thing that we could really point to in the world)) EITHER academics or designers/practitioners is deeply problematic. I would want to argue for fluidity of transfer of knowledge/expertise/experience even when we dont really realise it is happening. It is a fine grained process and more complex than the somewhat schematic framework I have already set out BUT I would argue the free flow/transfer of ideas in this newly emerging discipline COULD potentially defy/subvert all these old/limiting and deeply outmoded binaries between thinkers and doers and yet we appear (and maybe I am guilty of this also) to be reinserting them. Do any of you know the history of cultural studies for example – which in many ways is an analogous field and has dealt with analogous issues. I would very gladly share a basic summary of the ways in which that – apparently critical and subversive ‘field’ ‘propensity’ ‘set of interests’ eventually became consolidated into a ‘discipline’ which no longer retains (imho) its original radical potential. Along the way it has very much dealt with and been problematised by precisely the issues which appear to be under discussion here.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 2:45
  15. ErikC wrote:

    A longer answer (sorry):
    Can I suggest there are more than 2 groups of people? Game designers and academics-yes. But also the students, the general public, and people who will use games for other things, educationalists, marketers, psychologists, even travel agencies (and there are more).
    Many students need reflective space, and help in directing their own personal design skills and philosophy. Unlike selftaught game designers it can be hard to get in on the ground floor for you have now an industry not just an enterpreneurial craft/art.
    Not all students will be game designers, but academics (who are supposed to evaluate and communicate) can help students, the public, and other people to appreciate, understand or extend ideas in game design and appreciation.
    I use game ideas for archaeology, and a student in Sweden says she uses the ideas in my papers in turn for creating virtual tourism environments for disabled people. I am sorry if that is not of immediate help to the industry, but surely such things actually add longterm to the status and appreciation of games as more than just child’s play.
    And yes I too think James Gee and Clark Aldrich are writing books etc that are of wider use.
    Now a shorter answer: if academics don’t matter, why worry talking about them? :)

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 10:04
  16. Barry wrote:

    Some familiar ground (and toes) being trodden on here, so I’ll make the same observation I usually make, but hopefully in a slightly different way to add my answers to the question of “what’s the use?” Please don’t read this as defensive, because I don’t feel any of us have to defend what we do. If games academia has nothing for you then its a shame, but I would query any totalising assumption that there is a single thing going under the banner of games academia that is failing some kind of utility test.

    Game academia is not one thing, but many things. And many game academics wear many hats at different times. To slide into the anecdotal, I have a brief on my desk for making a game space in which to capture data for a health study. What’s the use? A potential academic contribution to using games, or at least the technology of games, for ‘serious’ purposes? There is certainly now a solid body of academic and industry work in this area, from the Serious Games Initiative to the kind of things Gonzalo Frasca and Ian Bogost are doing.

    I now work with people who have done a fantastic job using games in the classroom to encourage teamworking and co-operation through the making of something that has near-commercial production values.(http://www.icdc.org.uk/Vmule/) What’s the use? A practical attempt at what you seem to approve of in Gee’s work?

    I am currently finishing an article on the relationship of licensed games to existing IP at the moment (or would be if I wasn’t typing this…). What’s the use? It will probably have no interest to industry, but what the hell, trying to understand games is important to me, and I want to be part of a sophisticated public conversation about all aspects of games. Mind you, the professional press has covered the same issue a fair few times, and it does seem to be an issue that both developers and academics want to think through.

    I have a studio full of students currently finishing up their game environment projects, who will emerge from academia (with all its high falutin’ theory) and go on (if evidence from previous cohorts is any guide) to be informed practitioners within industry. What’s the use? Our industry partners seem to find a value in what we do.

    I wrote a book about games that was about games, and I wouldn’t presume to say that it has any use to game developers. It wasn’t supposed to have practical application. Its basic argument, however, is that as players of games we might want to try and understand them, and how they work and how they communicate their meanings. Nick is right – its a world away from what Michael is doing with Facade. I’d certainly recommend that anyone who wants to dismiss games academia should at least read Janet Murray’s book because it does have some real potential application, and it is beautifully written. Mine was aimed at players of games, not developers, and was initiated by discussions with MA students who wanted to discuss an area of cultural production that was a significant part of their experience of the world. I don’t think anyone could find immediate use in what I wrote.

    Helen is absolutely right – to look for direct ‘use value’ in some of what we do is to misunderstand what we do. Having spoken to a local radio journalist a couple of days ago who wanted endorsement of the ‘common sense’ understanding of all games as evil objects twisting the minds of the young I think we have some use in reinforcing the position of games as an area of culture worthy of serious consideration, but not all of what we do can get transferred from academia direct to development studios. Nor should it always try to position itself as such.

    If any of us give the impression that we are patronising the industry with the suggestion of a ‘we know best’ attitude, then I would probably suggest that we be a little more humble, but I would also suggest that this is more likely an error of tone. The important thing is dialogue and the sharing of knowledge across the supposed industry/academia divide as well as across disciplines. I look at what is going on at ITU Copenhagen, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin-Madison, MIT, University of the West of England or even in my own little corner of the world and I see something that is vibrant, diverse and unusually interested in co-operation and a sharing of knowledge. I like (and believe) in Helen’s description of a fluidity to any of the binary distinctions we are tempted to make. Apologies, however, for giving in to the academic tendency to be verbose.

    Barry

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 10:30
  17. helen wrote:

    here’s to humility and modesty at all times. we can *all* learn from each other and game culture generally – industry, margins, creatives, academics and players – is only improved by a diversity of voices – we can never know entirely/securely in advance what contribution we are going to make (and neither should we always have to) but we should all do what we do (from whatever standpoint) with rigour and passion and in the spirit of recognition of the ‘other’..

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 10:42
  18. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    First of all, thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments.

    Andrew,

    >>Academic game studies folk are trying to understand how videogames function, by analyzing them. That is, what exactly is happening when someone plays a game? [snip] These things should be at least indirectly useful to developers, sometimes directly useful. No?

    I can imagine these things being useful, yes. But again, this sounds very much like research being done in the context of some other academic area, and their effect is indirect and potential. What is with all the ‘game studies’? Aren’t those supposed to be studies of games as a medium, as opposed to games as a subject of, say, psychological or sociological studies?

    >>What galled me about that was that you must not have read Janet’s 1997 book, Hamlet on the Holodeck. Back in 1997, and I think still to this date 7 years later, that book is perhaps the finest and most thorough exploration of the history of the pursuit of creating interactive stories — looking carefully at the work of game designers, artists, writers and researchers.

    I won’t argue for Mark here: I will only say that he has read HotH, as have I. I read it 7 years ago, so the details are fuzzy. If it got a lot of people interested in interactive storytelling, that’s great. But I do remember being underwhelmed when it came to dealing with the actual nuts and bolts of interactive storytelling. It’s described as “Equal parts daydream and how-to”, but I recall it being more about daydream than how-to.

    >>She’s the last academic you should accuse of being unaware of the history of game design, especially in regards to interactive story.

    Eh. I just opened my copy and looked in the index for Chris Crawford. We can discuss the merits of Chris’s interactive storytelling approach, but surely any book that tries to cover the subject in a broad manner would have to mention him?

    >>Furthermore, the book goes into great detail about the term agency, and it was that book that really brought the term into use among those studying interactivity, and even in use among some game developers. Witness Doug
    Church’s recent use of the term in a Gamasutra interview

    I attended Doug’s first talk on FADTs about agency at GDC, and I recall that being before I read HotH, and I got that pretty quickly. I can’t back that up, and it’s probably a futile discussion. But as you mention yourself, it’s not the most rigid of concepts – does everybody who uses the term use it the same way? I would have to blow the dust of my copy to find out if Janet Murray’s agency is the same as Doug’s, or anyone else’s.

    >>One more link to throw in here

    Thanks, I will read that.

    Nick,

    >>Jurie, I think when you wrote “what’s the use?” that you were
    actually questioning the “use value” of academic work.

    Asking what the use of something is is different from questioning whether that something has any use or value. Part of what I’m trying to understand is what the purpose of the various areas of video game academic work is. Another part is determining if there’s anything there that might be useful for making better interactive entertainment.

    >>You could just as easily turn to all of these people who aren’t in the first group and say “You could be trying to find a cure for AIDS! Why would you want to do anything else? Tell me – I honestly don’t get it.”

    I could, but I wouldn’t. It is easy to see how most of your examples from the latter groups actually contribute to dealing with the problem of AIDS on a larger scale. But I don’t see that for quite a lot of video game research.

    >>There are some people studying video games who just don’t care — directly — about how to help video game creators.

    And that’s fine – see the small update I made to the original post. My question concerns the people who are not ostensibly studying games in the context of some other area of research.

    >>academics won’t always (or perhaps ever) be able to tell developers which category their own scholarship fits into.

    So the question is: if there are some academics out there want to make better interactive entertainment, how can we make the interface easier?

    Robin,

    >>I always enjoy reading these threads – especially when so many friends and colleagues are gathered around the campfire. But I feel that they are, primarily, an exercise in vocabulary excavation.

    Yes, most discussions about games, both inside and outside of the industry, are hindered by different people meaning different things by different words.

    >>As such, any statement about “what academics contribute” seems pretty hard to clarify – without a lot of backchannel/background discussion. Andrew’s post and Helen’s post are valiant attempts…

    I agree. However, I think the use of broad generalizations, such as “academics” or “industry people” is unavoidable up to some point. I highly doubt we could have agreed on one precise taxonomy that somebody somewhere didn’t feel was unfair. Also, it would have been unwieldy, both to write and to read. My hope was that people would help refine and respond to the questions, and so far that’s going pretty well.

    >>Do these open forums bleed energy from what could be rigorous, well-reasoned debate?

    They can, but they don’t have to. However, I agree that finding the right forums for debate is hard.

    Helen,

    please see above for my general thoughts regarding simple dichotomies such as “academics” “versus” “industry people”.

    I don’t want to highlight the dichotomy between “thinkers” and “doers”. I would disagree with anyone who says making interactive entertainment does not require a lot of thinking – including thinking not directly related to entering the next line of code. I want to find out why some of the thinkers in academia are thinking.

    Erik,

    >>Many students need reflective space, and help in directing their own
    personal design skills and philosophy. Unlike selftaught game designers it
    can be hard to get in on the ground floor for you have now an industry not
    just an enterpreneurial craft/art.

    So wouldn’t they need an education that teaches them how to make good interactive entertainment?

    >>that is not of immediate help to the industry, but surely such things actually add longterm to the status and appreciation of games as more than just child’s play.

    Surely – however, similarly to being reported on by publications as The Economist. It’s an indirect effect.

    >>Now a shorter answer: if academics don’t matter, why worry talking about them? :)

    I never said academics don’t matter.

    Barry,

    thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    >>Some familiar ground (and toes) being trodden on here, so I’ll make the same observation I usually make, but hopefully in a slightly different way to add my answers to the question of “what’s the use?”

    Again: my question is not whether games academia has a use at all, but what that use is, or those uses are.

    Additionally, I am wondering (in frustration), why not more of games academia seems squarely aimed at improving interactive entertainment.

    And now I must post this before more comments come in while I’m writing this, and before it grows overlong.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 10:44
  19. Aubrey wrote:

    Although it’s a bit late now (comment explosion!), I should probably point out that I have found useful academic articles in the past – I didn’t mean to sound as though everything was “a restatement, or plain wrong” in the first post.

    I must admit, though, that I can’t remember which articles these are.

    I’m no fan of the counter-snobbery that ensues against the Ivory Tower by self described pragmatists. The fact is (and THIS is a restatement), there is good stuff out there but it is hard to find. I don’t feel like assessing a bad piece of writing is a waste of my time – in many cases it creates new ideas. Being unhappy with the status quo is one of the fastest ways to go about changing it. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it and all that guff”. (Hmm, by this reasoning, anything good I do is a result of someone else doing it worse, or just really pissing me off in the general sense).

    In conclusion: I love academics, and academics love me (I have photographic evidence).

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 11:34
  20. ErikC wrote:

    “I’m afraid many people who are interested in thinking about games will assume, as I once did, that video game academia has some merit”..Once did?
    well sorry (“I never said academics don’t matter”) that was -I thought-the provocative question.
    If you are asking why academics aren’t teaching students to be _better_ interactive entertainment designers I suggest
    a. There are more humanities scholars than humanities posts (pls correct my cynicism)and there are many new ‘design’ posts. I know in my departments there is a real shortage of experienced multimedia teachers.
    b. People who love creating and are great at it don’t tend to work for institutions (be they in multimedia, architecture or film making).
    c. The field in terms of corporate clout is relatively new and based on technology moving in strange and exciting heated ways (unless we can only talk about desktops).
    d. Building successful spatial environments takes a huge amount of experience-let alone interactive ones. And they are very complex to evaluate or communicate.
    e. As Socrates said, if you want to know art, don’t ask artists. Teaching is a different skill to designing.
    f. Perhaps the biggest reason: games are not easily (at least in my country) seen as research. Certainly not at the level of refereed papers, books etc. Tis a real shame.
    g. Traditional scholars are prescriptive knowledge based, their very medium of learning is different.
    If you are asking a more prescriptive question, ie how we can remedy this, I would be very interested to know.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 12:51
  21. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    >>”I’m afraid many people who are interested in thinking about games will
    assume, as I once did, that video game academia has some merit”..Once did?
    well sorry (“I never said academics don’t matter”) that was -I thought-the
    provocative question.

    I must admit your interpretation is not unreasonable. The merit I referred to was, once again, in the context of making better interactive entertainment.

    >> a. There are more humanities scholars than humanities posts (pls correct my cynicism)and there are many new ‘design’ posts.

    Must game design necessarily involve only the humanities? How strong is that split?

    >>I know in my departments there is a real shortage of experienced multimedia teachers.

    I suspect that, ironically, it’s just as hard to go from industry to academia as vice versa. Except for the vocational side of things perhaps, but I have not been impressed with the quality of that in the past.

    >>d. Building successful spatial environments takes a huge amount of experience-let alone interactive ones.

    Why spatial environments? Spatiality is not an essential element of interactive entertainment (even though some game academics claim the opposite).

    >>And they are very complex to evaluate or communicate.

    True. This is a general problem of thinking and talking about games. One could call this a vocabulary problem, but it’s really a problem of the concepts behind the words.

    >>e. As Socrates said, if you want to know art, don’t ask artists. Teaching is a different skill to designing.

    I agree. Ask me about my guitar teacher sometime – just don’t ask me to play the guitar.

    >>f. Perhaps the biggest reason: games are not easily (at least in my country) seen as research. Certainly not at the level of refereed papers, books etc. Tis a real shame.

    I remember reading on the Digra list about the political struggle behind being able to study games – how some people strongly demarcated games from other media studies simply as a way to get funding.

    >>g. Traditional scholars are prescriptive knowledge based, their very medium
    of learning is different.

    I totally do not follow you here, sorry.

    >>If you are asking a more prescriptive question, ie how we can remedy this,
    I would be very interested to know.

    Well… How can we improve communication between academia and industry? How can we increase the amount of thinking that goes into making better interactive entertainment (I realize I must appear obsessive by now ;)

    This also goes back to the topics Robin raised.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 13:14
  22. nick wrote:

    Jurie, your specific question about why there isn’t more developer-oriented academic work is a good one. There are various answers, I’m sure, that involve academics preferring not to do such work, developers not looking to academia, an inability to do large research projects that have anything to do with the current massive and costly development processes, etc., but perhaps the simple ratio of a large number of “consumers” (players) to a few “producers” (developers) is one significant factor.

    Personally, I definitely wanted Twisty Little Passages to be of direct use to IF developers, including Emily Short, Adam Cadre, Andrew Plotkin, Paul O’Brien, Stephen Granade, Dan Shiovitz, and Graham Nelson, but I wasn’t trying to write a book that would be as directly useful to, say, Will Wright and Tetsuya Mizuguchi. My hope is that the book will be one of several factors that fosters continued innovation in interactive fiction. It would be great, also, if what is learned in IF can trickle up to commercial gaming in various ways.

    Posted 14 Dec 2004 at 21:56
  23. ErikC wrote:

    >How can we increase the amount of thinking that goes into making better interactive entertainment?

    maybe the real problem is we don’t have agreed upon standards of ‘better interactive entertainment’. If there are such standards for academia and for industry, I would love to see them, and if/how we can bring them closer together.

    I will write up a bigger article for the games community on bridging the joystick divide between academia and gamers and can post ideas from it here if interested, but a more immediate step might be to look at articles on this divide and tell us what the industry thinks of it.
    For example http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/tshah/PauschAcademicsFieldGuideToEA.pdf
    There may be a better starting point, I just thought this may interest you.

    Posted 15 Dec 2004 at 2:57
  24. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Erik, I agree that some kind of consensus on what ‘better interactive entertainment’ means would be a useful step.

    I am interested in bridging the divide, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the post (even if it may not appear that way :). I already know the PDF you linked to – it is highly interesting for the insight it gives into EA.

    Posted 20 Dec 2004 at 23:06
  25. jennifer wrote:

    i want to be a singer

    Posted 06 Jul 2005 at 20:44
  26. john wrote:

    you’ve come to the right place.

    Posted 07 Jul 2005 at 23:10

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