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Game studies or gaming theory is an academic discipline that deals with the critical study of games. More specifically, it focuses on game design, players, and their role in society and culture. Game studies is an inter-disciplinary field with researchers and academics from a multitude of other areas such as computer science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts and literature, media studies, communication, theology, and more.
Like other media disciplines, such as television studies and film studies, game studies often involves textual analysis and audience theory. Game studies tends to employ more diverse methodologies than these other branches, however, drawing from both social science and humanities approaches.
Prior to the late-twentieth century, the academic study of games was rare and limited to fields such as history and anthropology. For example, in the early 1900s Stewart Culin wrote a comprehensive catalog of gaming implements and games from Native American tribes north of Mexico while Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois explored the importance of games and play as a basic human activity that helps define culture. As the video game revolution took off in the early 1980s, so did academic interest in games, resulting in a field that draws on diverse methodologies and schools of thought.
These influences may be characterized broadly in three ways: the social science approach, the humanities approach, and the industry and engineering approach. In addition to asking different types of questions, each approach tends to use different methods and tools. A large body of social scientists prefer quantitative tools and methods while a smaller group makes use of qualitative research. Academics from the humanities tend to prefer tools and methods that are qualitative. The industry approach is practice-driven and usually, less concerned with theory than the other two. Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and a significant part of game studies research blends them together. Tracy Fullerton and Kenji Ito’s work are examples of interdisciplinary work being pursued in game studies.
The youth of the field of game studies is also another reason for blurred boundaries between approaches. Williams, in a call for greater inter-disciplinary work in communications-oriented games scholarship, noted how the "study of videogames is poised to repeat the mistakes of past academic inquiry". He argues that the youth of the field means that it is not bound to follow the traditional divisions of scholarly work and that an opportunity exists to rediscover the strengths and contributions that different scholarly traditions can offer.
Broadly speaking, the social scientific approach has concerned itself with the question of "What do games do to people?" Using tools and methods such as surveys, controlled laboratory experiments, and ethnography researchers have investigated both the positive and negative impacts that playing games could have on people.
Among the possible negative effects of gameplay, perhaps the one most commonly raised by media and the general public has to do with violence in videogames. What are the possible effects that playing videogames, in particular those that feature aggressive or violent elements, might have on children and youth? Social learning theory (e.g., Bandura, 1986) suggests that playing aggressive videogames would stimulate aggressive behavior in players in particular because the player is an active participant (as opposed to a passive observer as the case of aggression in film and television). On the other hand, catharsis theory (e.g., Feshbach and Singer, 1971) implies that playing aggressive videogames would have the opposite effect by channeling latent aggression, resulting in a positive effect on players. Numerous reviews of existing literature have been written and there is not a clear scientific consensus of the effects that playing violent videogames might have (Griffiths, 1999; Sherry, 2001), though Ferguson (2010) concludes that their impact is generally positive.
As for positive effects, educators and learning scientists have also debated how to leverage the motivation students had for playing games as well as exploring the medium of videogames for educational and pedagogical purposes. Malone explored the intrinsically motivating qualities that games have and how they might be useful in designing educational games (Malone, 1980; Malone, 1981). Malone and Lepper (1987) recommended four main heuristics namely challenge, fantasy, curiosity, and control for game designers and researchers to improve the user interaction interface. Kafai had schoolchildren design games to learn computer programming concepts and mathematics (Kafai, 1995; Kafai, 1996). Similarly, Squire has explored the use of commercial games as a means for engaging disenfranchised students in school (Squire, 2005), while Gerber has explored how video games shape students' peripheral literacy activities; mainly reading and writing in both online and offline spaces (Gerber, 2009; Gerber & Price, 2011). In addition to their motivational factors, Gee and Shaffer have argued that certain qualities present in the medium of videogames provide valuable opportunities for learning (Gee, 2003; Shaffer, 2006).
However, in recent years more sociologically-informed research has sought to move away from simplistic ideas of gaming as either 'negative' or 'positive', but rather seeking to understand its role and location in the complexities of everyday life (Garry Crawford 2012). For example, in her book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle explored how people who participated in online multiplayer games such as MUDs, used their experiences with the game to explore personal issues of identity (Turkle, 1995). In her book Play Between Worlds, T. L. Taylor (2006) recounts her experience playing the massively multiplayer online game, Everquest. In doing so, she seeks to understand "the nuanced border relationship that exists between MMOG players and the (game) worlds they inhabit".
Finally, economists have also begun studying games, in particular massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), to understand human behavior better. The economic activity in these games is being studied as one would study the economy of a nation, such as Russia or Bulgaria (Castronova, 2001). Different theories, such as coordination game theory, can be put to the test because games can produce contexts for natural experiments, a high number of participants as well as tightly controlled experimental conditions (Castronova, 2006). From this perspective, games provide a unique context in which human activity may be explored and better understood. For example, it has been suggested that the very popular MMO World of Warcraft could be used to study the dissemination of infectious diseases because of the accidental spread of a plague-like disease in the gameworld.
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In general terms, the humanities approach has concerned itself with the question of "What meanings are made through games?" Using tools and methods such as interviews, ethnographies and participant observation, researchers have investigated the various roles that videogames play in people’s lives and activities together with the meaning they assign to their experiences. For example, Consalvo explores how players choose to play the games they buy and negotiate how, when, and for what reasons to subvert a game’s rules (Consalvo, 2007). It turns out that "cheating" is a very complex phenomenon whose meaning is continually negotiated by players, the game industry, and various gaming sub-cultures that revolve around specific games.
Other researchers have focused on understanding videogames as cultural artifacts with embedded meaning, exploring what the medium of the videogame is, and situating it in context to other forms of human expression. Brenda Laurel’s book Computers as Theatre, while principally focused on applying tenets of theatre criticism to the design of human-computer interface design, describes how videogames are the natural result of the "capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate" (Laurel, 1991) of computers. Rather than considering the computer as a highly efficient tool for calculating or computing, she proposed understanding the computer as a medium. The thesis of her book attempts to draw parallels between drama and the computer, with computers allowing their users to play equivalent roles to both the drama performer as well as the audience member. Throughout her book, Laurel uses different videogames as exemplars of many of the ideas and principles she tries to communicate. Henry Jenkins, on the other hand, explores the role that videogames play in a broader context he refers to as transmedia storytelling. In Jenkins' view, content moves between different media, and videogames are a part of the general ecology of storytelling media that include movies, novels, and comic books (Jenkins, 2003). Similarly, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, describes the computer as a new medium for the practice of storytelling (Murray, 1997). By analyzing videogames along with other digital artifacts such as hypertext and interactive chat characters, Murray explores the new expressive possibilities allowed by computers. In particular, she views videogames as part of an expanded concept of storytelling she calls cyberdrama. Espen Aarseth, in his book Cybertext, disagrees with Murray’s idea and holds, "to claim there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories" (Aarseth, 1997).
This disagreement has been called the ludology vs. narratology debates. The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative (Murray, 1997; Atkins, 2003). The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental (Aarseth, 2001; Eskelinen, 2001; Eskelinen, 2004). The idea that a videogame is "radically different to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure" has led the development of new approaches to criticism that are focused on videogames as well adapting, repurposing and proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about videogames. A recent approach towards game studies starts with an analysis of interface structures and challenges the keyboard-mouse paradigm with what is called "ludic interfaces".
Jesper Juul’s Half-Real explores how videogames blend formal rules with the imaginative experiences provided by fictional worlds. He describes the tensions faced by games studies scholars when choosing to focus on the game or the player of the game. "We can examine the rules as they are found mechanically in the game program or in the manual of a board game, or we can examine the rules as something that players negotiate and learn. We can also treat the fictional world as a set of signs that the game presents, and we can treat the fictional world as something that the game cues the player into imagining and that players then imagine in their own ways (Juul, 2005)." Bogost’s comparative approach to videogame criticism also stands out as one of the more recent steps in the direction of proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about games. In Unit Operations, Bogost argues for explicating videogames through a new form of criticism that encompasses the programmatic and algorithmic underpinnings of games together with the cultural and ideological units (2006).
Industry and engineering approach
The industry and engineering approach is perhaps the hardest of the three approaches to present. From an engineering perspective, videogames have been the context for a wide variety of technological innovations and advancements in areas such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and networking, among others. While the research pursued in these areas is mostly not about games, it is quite common for videogames to be used as a context in which to demonstrate the solutions and problems solved. A counter-example to the above is Mateas and Stern’s interactive drama Façade, a novel videogame whose design and development resulted in contributions to the field of artificial intelligence (Mateas, 2002; Mateas and Stern, 2004).
From an industry perspective, a lot of game studies research can be seen as the academic response to the videogame industry’s questions regarding the products it creates and sells. The main question this approach deals with can be summarized as "How can we create better games?" with the accompanying "What makes a game good?" "Good" can be taken to mean many different things. Does the game provide an entertaining and engaging experience to the player? Is the game easy to learn and easy to play? Is the game innovative or does it provide the player with an opportunity to have novel experiences? Different approaches to studying this problem have looked at describing how to design games (Crawford, 1984; Rollings and Morris, 2000; Rouse III, 2001), extracting guidelines and rules of thumb for making better games (Fabricatore et al., 2002; Falstein, 2004), abstracting commonalities from games and understanding how they relate to each other (Björk and Holopainen, 2005; Zagal et al., 2005), and studying the gameplaying experience from the point of view of the player (Pagulayan et al., 2003; Sykes and Brown, 2003; Koster, 2004). Much of this research is also dedicated to defining and constructing a vocabulary for describing games and thinking through the design of new ones (Church, 1999; Kreimeier, 2002).
The industrial approach can be characterized as "design" or "product" driven. Methodologically, a wide variety of approaches have been taken. Most often, they are attempts to re-imagine existing practices in other fields and industries to the videogame industry. Pagulayan and colleagues, for example, have worked on developing tools and practices for evaluating usability in games (Pagulayan et al., 2003) while Bjork and Holopainen, borrowing from the literature on software patterns in software engineering have worked towards creating patterns for gameplay (Björk and Holopainen, 2005). Also, Bateman and Boon, using Myer-Briggs typology, have conducted research to create tools to help guide the design of games for certain demographic groups by incorporating elements specifically designed to meet their needs.
Other areas of research
As is common with most academic disciplines, there are a number of more specialized areas or sub-domains of study.
An emerging field of study (Oliver Grau, 2004, and others) looks at the "pre-history" of video games, and at the branch of their roots that lie in: fairground attractions and sideshows such as shooting games; early "Coney Island"-style pleasure parks with elements such as large roller-coasters and "haunted house" simulations; nineteenth century landscape simulations such as dioramas, panoramas, planetariums, and stereographs; and amusement arcades that had mechanical game machines and also peep-show film machines.
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- Ito, Kenji (2005). "Possibilities of Non-Commercial Games: The Case of Amateur Role Playing Games Designers in Japan" (PDF). Changing Views: Worlds in Play, Selected Papers from the 2005 DiGRA Conference. Vancouver, Canada: DiGRA. pp. 135–145.
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- Bateman, C.; Boon, R. (2006). 21st Century Game Design. Hingham, Mass: Charles River Media.
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- Bogost, Ian (2006). Unit Operations: an Approach to Videogame Criticism. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-02599-7.
- Bolter, Jay David; Richard Grusin (2000). Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-52279-3.
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- Ferguson, Christopher J. (2010). "Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good?". Review of General Psychology 14 (2): 68–81. doi:10.1037/a0018941.
- Galloway, Alexander R. (2006). Gaming:Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-4850-4.
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- Hanson, Matt (2004). The End of Celluloid: Film futures in the digital age. Rotovision,. ISBN 2-88046-783-7.
- Harrigan, Pat and; Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2007). Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-08356-0.
- Juul, Jesper (July 2001). "Games Telling Stories: A brief note on games & Narratives". Games Studies 1 (1).
- Juul, Jesper (2006). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-10110-3.
- King, Brad; John Borland (2003). Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-222888-1.
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- Manovich, Lev (2001). The Language of New Media. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-63255-3.
- Mäyrä, Frans (2008). An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1-4129-3445-9.
- McAllister, Ken S. (2004). Gamework: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-5420-4.
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- Rutter, Jason; Jo Bryce (2006). Understanding Digital Games. Sage. ISBN 1-4129-0033-6. (Table of contents and contributing authors), (Introduction to collection)
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- Salen, Katie; Eric Zimmerman (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-24045-9.
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- DiGRA' digital library of game studies conference papers
- Gameology.org: commentary and resources for the game studies community
- Game Research: The art, business, and science of video games
- Jesper Juul's blog: The Ludologist
- Frans Mäyrä's blog
- Gonzalo Frasca's Ludology blog
- ihobo blog
- Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins
- Notes on referencing games in scholarly publications
- Ludology audio podcast Hosted by Ryan Sturm and Geoff Engelstein featuring analytical discussion of the how’s and why’s of the world of board games.
- Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA)
- Canadian Games Studies Association
- Spilforskning - The Danish network of game researchers
- JoinGame Nasjonalt ressursnettverk for dataspill (Norwegian)
- IEEE Game Engineering SIG and IEEE PSM Task Force
- IGDA Game Education SIG
- Polskie Towarzystwo Badania Gier (Games Research Association of Poland)
- ACM Computers in Entertainment
- Digital Creativity
- Elsevier Entertainment Computing
- Homo Ludens
- Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture
- Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media
- Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research
- Hindawi International Journal of Computer Games Technology
- Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds
- International Journal of Roleplaying
- Journal of Virtual Reality and Broadcasting
- Journal of Virtual Worlds Research
- SAGE Simulation and Gaming
- The Computer Games Journal
- International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology ACE 2009
- 8th International Conference on Entertainment Computing (ICEC 2009)
- Future Play
- SIGGRAPH Games Focus
- SIGGRAPH Sandbox 2008
- DiGRA 2009: Breaking new ground
- Fourth Philosophy of Computer Games Conference
- Culture-Generative Function of Games (Kulturotwórcza funkcja gier)
- DIstributed SImulation and Online gaming (DISIO 2010)