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Why I study video games

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There’s an endless tsunami of articles about why people play video games, but a perfunctory Google search reveals there’s far less literature on why people study video games. It’s not non-existent, and some of it is certainly approachable, but it’s not exhaustive.

So I’m adding my own reasons to the list, originality be damned. As a co-ordinator on Project Cognizance and a resident of Reddit’s /r/Ludology, I come across a lot of interesting and exciting data on video games that make it a worthwhile endeavour for serious and personal study. Many people might question the uniqueness of games, but it’s actually quite an enthralling pursuit because of several reasons. So to circle back, why do I study video games?

In short, it’s interesting. It’s exciting. It’s a train wreck that keeps me glued to its many imperfections. It’s an ecosystem of broken systems, inadvertently jockeying for relevance in a hurricane of hypocrisy. At the moment, the nebulous field of video game studies is in an ontological and epistemological civil war.

If there’s ever a field to become interested in, video games are a very good field at the moment: there’s constant debates on the nature of ludic components versus narrative components, intrinsic versus instrumental value, and game design from differing perspectives. From how stories are written to how they’re presented to whether they need stories at all, everything in the field of video game studies is under debate. This argument is even more pronounced when you consider that games are quite capable of making boatloads of cash; they’re expansive, culturally invasive, and highly diverse pieces of media.

Studying games also means multidirectional and multidimensional actors and structures. Every level has the potential to be a mess, whether it’s development crises or narrative ones. I study games because they’re tangible cases of narrative and developmental experimentation; they’re accentuations of postmodern art increased to Nth degrees. Because games involve both active consumption and limited freedom from its consumers, it’s a tug-of-war-type storytelling that creates novel and intriguing products.

People may also like the incredibly multifaceted nature of video game studies. Whether it’s focusing on a game through narrative or looking at its interactivity through ludology, video game studies are one of the more versatile categories of media to analyse. There’s gulfs of difference between so many of its extremities that fixation and specialisation on a particular set of subgroups within video games make it a worthwhile intellectual pursuit.

Game studies also have huge hurdles in reconciling instrumental versus intrinsic values. Games come in all forms and types, ranging from very simplistic math games like Math Blaster to highly complex and technologically complex games such as Grand Theft Auto V. Since consumers have their own rationale on the existence of games, they serve as magnified examples of the instrumental versus intrinsic debate. Whether games are simply a means to a functional end (ie. Helping kids with math homework, developing motor skills, learning a new language) or whether they have a greater intrinsic value (standing as a piece of art that solely exists for the sake of artistic alone) is a debate that continues within its communities. Oftentimes, claims of ‘it’s just a game’ or ‘it’s more than just a game’ are telling and intriguing indicators of  wider, more complex social value systems that the medium has yet to sufficiently reconcile.

Additionally, a game’s metric is a very unique telling of mainstream opinion. Even more important is the gameplay versus story divide that can exist in video games. Of all of our consumed media, the most complex analyses can emerge from video game texts. Games inhabit spaces where they must consider the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of specific literary tools while juggling interactive enmeshment. In addition to being able to tell a good story (or even having a story), developers have the additional trouble of telling a good story that interacts effectively with the gameplay elements that shares its creative space. Gameplay and storytelling are constant areas of concern for game evaluation, and much of the challenge and excitement in game studies is understanding group or authority-formulated metrics for what makes a good or bad game. In turn, understanding what is or is not prioritized in applying value judgments can tell analysts, researchers, journalists, and observers much about the priorities set within the disparate communities of gamers themselves.

There’s a lot of great work by great people, whether it’s Keith Burgun, Neil Randall, or Anita Sarkeesian. Some of them you may not agree with; some of them you may hate or distrust. But what’s central is that they’re on the forefront of a lot of striking research on a field fixated with seriousness, yet too shy to critically evaluate its strengths and shortcomings on a mainstream basis. To many, games continue to exist within a ‘just games’ sphere, where the meaning of a complex multi-layered story is bubbled in its own mechanics and tale. I study video games because of all of the media capable of first and second order representations, none are more effective at garnering both major disdain and support than video games.

These are all very exciting subjects and subfields that have, in some fashion, come to the forefront of gaming analysis. I study games because there’s a frenetic chaotic element to its many subjects that invites understanding. There’s so many groups that embed and imbue their values upon gaming, and gaming imbues and embeds its values upon those groups in turn, that make it nearly impossible to understate its complexity. If we’re to consider ourselves as gamers, then we need to take it seriously at some level on a broad, community basis. Sure, the cuss-happy 12 year old is a true and frequent trope, but that’s the cost for working with some phenomenal media.


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