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