Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Small is beautiful, immature is good

Michael Nitsche has an interesting piece up as part of the DiGRA Hardcore series of essays. Lots to chew on, particularly as he is really pitching the DiGRA SiG on Games and Film that is an unproblematically good idea. I have a paper to give in November at an event organised by Diane Carr, the other half of the Games and Film SiG, happily teach on our animation and film degrees, and have published a fair amount on games and film so I am a believer in the good things that can come out of careful use of film criticism applied to the very specific circumstances of games.

Something I find a little odd, however, is the rush to declare game studies an established and even mature field/discipline/whatever that this column seems to be contributing to. Yes, things are different now and we have lost something of the pioneering early excitement (I think Julian Kucklich made much the same point, albeit with extra sarcasm, in an earlier Hardcore column here), and yes, I suppose the acceptance of what we do has changed radically even over the last seven years I have been involved in this strange activity, but to shackle oneself to games as an academic is still to join a tiny bunch of people.

I am constantly surprised by how I seem to know (personally or through the work and/or reputation) so many of the people in game studies. In a previous life I used to have the job of tracking all the new research published in American literature 1900-1945 for Year’s Work in English Studies and even this tiny fragment of literature studies seems huge in comparison to game studies. Media effects stuff (or at least that bit that ‘proves’ that games turn you into a mindless killer) aside I think the only reason I haven’t read all the game studies literature that is out there is choice, rather than being overwhelmed by quantity. DiGRA, and the active and vocal online community, give the impression that we are bigger than we really are, I think, but I would love to know how many game studies academics there really are who think of themselves as first and foremost games scholars. Dozens? A hundred or more? A couple of hundred worldwide?

I like the fact we are small, and even a little ramshackle and even immature, and don’t have all the structures and controls of a larger discipline. I still think the curriculum should be, more or less, everything. There really isn’t that much work out there. There really aren’t that many books, in particular, and it is still possible to have a solid grasp of the literature. Knocking about the games sites while I should have been doing something else I happened on a post at Terra Nova where someone mentions that they are speaking at “the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association, which brings together over 3000 accounting professors from the US”. Now that is a lot of people working in an area. And I get the impression that is a subset of all the accounting professors in the States, which has to be part of a worldwide accounting discipline. I hope we never get that big so we get lost in the mass. Wow 3,000 people all talking about accounting in one place...


micnit said...

Thanks for noting the column. Sure, you are right, if one looks as monster events like MLA conferences or other established behemoths ... we are still small in comparison. And that's nice.
But the point I tried to get across was that this early innocence is gone. I was in the room when Jesper raised his hand as the first PhD in Game Studies (which he is not - sorry Jesper) and that was 4 years ago. And - to stay with Jesper - when he started his really nice article on time in video games with "The following sketches a theory of time in games. This is
motivated by: 1) plain curiosity; 2) theoretical lack: much work
has been done on time in other cultural forms, but there is very
little theory of time in games; 3) the hope that a theory of
game time may help us examine specific games"
This kind of innocence is gone and if you try to write about time in games then there is actually a handful of papers alone to refer to, plus some books and new findings. Sure, we do not have a SIG on the early Kojima or the N64 phase of Miyamoto (let's see whether we get there) but the shelf is filling up with books on games research. Just to mention: yes, I am looking forward to also read your new book, but there is also Bogost's new one and still so much unread stuff in the Second Person reader. It feels like we grow up pretty fast and that there is a certain hunger for that material out there.

Barry Atkins said...

I agree with your main point in the Hardcore column, I really do. There is certainly so much more published research than there once was. One consequence of the scattering of the literature and people a while back (certainly pre-DiGRA) was that it was easy to miss the work which was already extant. I think I made enough of my own naive comments a few years ago assuming ground was untrodden that had already seen a fair few academic feet, and I now cringe when I think about some fundamental errors of exclusion I made when I started writing about games at the turn of the millenium. We do need things like the film SIG, if for no other reason than to identify each other in terms of who is interested in what and to give us the sense that we are involved in a wider academic conversation. Working on games is certainly not as lonely as once it was.

I just have a little nervousness about any rush to claim maturity. I think we are still a tiny group of people, and would really like to know how many we are, because I think that could condition some of the expectations we have of the apparatus (subject association, journals etc. run, as ever, by already stretched volunteer workforces) that comes with the territory. I almost want to say that if we are to continue to punch above our weight then there is almost a need for us to be hyperactive if we are to see game studies really mature. Kind of ‘Do not ask what game studies can do for you, but what you can do for game studies’, which the formation of DiGRA SIGs and local chapters along the lines of the IGDA could contribute to. First and foremost, however, I would say there is a need for more published material. It is harder now, because of the need to take account of the existing body of literature, but all the better for that. Less innocence, hopefully fewer dumb things get said and written. Especially by me.

I suppose I am less confident than other people about how far down the road we are, and am still anxious that we feel engaged in a common enterprise if a foundational phase be got through. It wouldn't be the first time if I was wrong, however.

micnit said...

sorry for the delay;
There is surely still a long way ahead, I agree. And publications (or a better organized publications method) are one way forward. Well, maybe we can do some SIG specific piece in some time.
Maybe we need immature pockets to keep it fresh and overloaded? Like a "fantasy" track in DiGRA where only the weirdest next ideas are discussed?

Barry Atkins said...

Ah, I thought game studies was where all the wierd next ideas are discussed. :) Maybe I just hanker after the early days and don't want to let go. A sign of personal, rather than disciplinary, immaturity?

Barry Atkins said...

My spelling weird incorrectly is cetainly a sign of something... I don't think I'll ever get used to not having multiple drafts of everything before it goes out into the world.

Erik said...

This thread is now 'old' but I have to ask, does game studies actually want or even require maturity?

Barry Atkins said...

I am only now beginning to recognise the mess of contradictions that is inherent in my own position. I want all the energy and enthusiasm that goes with this pre-maturity. Breaking rules and crossing some territorial boundaries can be invigorating, after all. After the DiGRA meeting in Tokyo, however, I am aware that I am a stuffy academic from a different time, in some ways at least, and want that absolute security of an established disciplinary method of scholarship. And I have always thought we could have that because we always come from somewhere else. What strikes me as a worrying possibility is that people will work in game studies without being grounded in any disciplinary home at all.