Game studies

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Not to be confused with Game theory.

Game studies is the study of games, the act of playing them, and the players and cultures surrounding them. It is a discipline of cultural studies that deals with all types of games throughout history. This field of research utilizes the tactics of, at least, anthropology, sociology and psychology, while examining aspects of the design of the game, the players in the game, and finally, the role the game plays in its society or culture. Game studies is oftentimes confused with the study of video games, but this is only one area of focus; in reality game studies encompasses all types of gaming, including sports, board games, etc.

Before video games, game studies often only included anthropological work, studying the games of past societies.[1] However, once video games were introduced and became mainstream, game studies were updated to perform sociological and psychological observations;[2] to observe the effects of gaming on an individual, his or her interactions with society, and the way it could impact the world around us.

There are three main approaches to game studies: the social science approach asks itself how games affect people and uses tools such as surveys and controlled lab experiments. The humanities approach asks itself what meanings are expressed through games, and uses tools such as ethnography and patient observation. The industrial and engineering approach applies mostly to video games and less to games in general, and examines things such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and networking.[3] Like other media disciplines, such as television and film studies, game studies often involves textual analysis and audience theory.


Before the creation and popularization of video games in the late-twentieth century, the study of games was mostly confined to fields such as anthropology, studying the games of past civilizations. Some of the most popular examples of ludology during these times are works such as Stewart Culin’s comprehensive catalog of Native American games and gaming implements north of Mexico,[4] and Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois discussed the importance of gaming and play to a societies culture, and even how it may help define it.[5] As video games became more and more popular in the 1980s, so too did the interest in studying games rise. It wasn’t until Gonzalo Frasca popularized the term Ludology (from the Latin word for game, ludus) in 1999,[6] the publication of the first issue of academic journal "Game Studies" in 2001, and the creation of the Digital Games Research Association in 2003, that scholars began to get the sense that the study of games could (and should) be considered a field in its own right: game studies. As a young field, it gathers scholars from different disciplines that had been broadly studying games; such as psychology, anthropology, economy, education, and sociology.

The field's influences may be characterized broadly in three ways:[7] 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.[8][9]

The youth of the field of game studies is also another reason for blurred boundaries between approaches. Williams, in a call for greater interdisciplinary work in communications-oriented games scholarship, noted how the "study of videogames is poised to repeat the mistakes of past academic inquiry".[10] 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.

Social sciences[edit]

People studying or researching the social scientific approach to game studies, or ludology, ask themselves the question “What do games do to people?” They conduct these studies and perform this research by using resources such as surveys, controlled laboratory experiments, and ethnography. Researchers in this field investigate both the potential benefits and the potential detriments that gaming may have on populations.

One of the earliest social science theories (1971) about the role of video games in society involved violence in video games, later becoming known as the catharsis theory. The theory suggests that playing video games in which you perform violent acts might actually channel latent aggression, resulting in less aggression in the players real lives.[11] However, a Meta-study performed by Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman, in 2001, examined data starting from the 1980s up until the article was published, the purpose of this study was to examine whether or not playing violent video games led to an increase in aggressive behaviors.[12] They concluded that exposure to violence in video games did indeed cause an increase in aggression. However, it has been pointed out, and even stressed, by psychologist Jonathan Freedman that this research was very limited and even problematic since overly strong claims were made and the authors themselves seemed extremely biased in their writings. More recent studies, such as the one performed by Christopher J. Ferguson at Texas A&M International University have come to drastically different conclusions. In this study, individuals were either randomly assigned a game, or allowed to choose a game, in both the randomized and the choice conditions exposure to violent video games caused no difference in aggression. A later study (performed by the same people) looked for correlations between trait aggression, violent crimes, and exposure to both real life violence and violence in video games, this study suggests that while family violence and trait aggression are highly correlated with violent crime, exposure to video game violence was not a good predictor of violent crime, having little to no correlation, unless also paired with the above traits that had a much higher correlation.[13] Over the past 15 years, a large number of meta-studies have been applied to this issue, each coming to its own conclusion, resulting in little consensus in the ludology community.

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 video games 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; 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 and mathematics concepts (Kafai, 1995; 1996).[clarification needed (missing refs)] Similarly, Squire has explored the use of commercial games as a means for engaging disenfranchised students in school (Squire, 2005),[clarification needed (missing ref)] 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).[clarification needed (missing refs)] In addition to their motivational factors, Gee and Shaffer have argued that certain qualities present in the medium of video games provide valuable opportunities for learning (Gee, 2003; Shaffer, 2006).[clarification needed (missing refs)] Game designers Amy Jo Kim and Jane McGonigal have suggested that platforms which leverage the powerful qualities of video games in non-game contexts can maximize learning.[14][15] Known as the gamification of learning, using game elements in non-game contexts extracts the properties of games from within the game context, and applies them to a learning context such as the classroom.

Another positive aspect of video games is its conducive character towards the involvement of a person in other cultural activities. The probability of game playing increases with the consumption of other cultural goods (e.g., listening to music or watching television) or active involvement in artistic activities (e.g., writing or visual arts production).[16] Video games by being complementary towards more traditional forms of cultural consumption, inhibit thus value from a cultural perspective.

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).[17] 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) documents her ethnography of 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".[18]

Economists are also studying massive multiplayer online games to understand human behavior better. The economic activity in these games is being studied as one would study the economy of a real-earth nation (Castronova, 2001).[clarification needed (missing ref)] 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).[clarification needed (missing ref)] 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.


The question that ludologists in the humanities field ask themselves is “What meanings are expressed through the game to the player?” They conduct these studies by using methods like interviews, ethnographies, and observations of players as they progress through the game. The purpose of this field of ludology is to investigate the role that gaming may play in peoples lives (be they hardcore or casual gamers), and what meanings the players may extract from their experiences with different games. For example, Consalvo (2007)[12] explores how players choose to play the games they buy and negotiate how, when, and for what reasons to subvert a game’s rules. It turns out that "cheating" is a complex phenomenon whose meaning is continually negotiated by players, the game industry, and various gaming subcultures that revolve around specific games. However, this particular field has also caused a lot of controversy in ludology, known as the ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ debates. The Narratological perspective is that games should be looked at for their stories, like movies or novels, while the ludological perspective says that games are not like these other mediums due to the fact that a player is actively taking part in the experience and should therefore be understood on their own terms; there is a third party however that says separating scholars into different camps is not a good idea and can hurt the field as a whole.[19][20] The idea that a videogame is "radically different to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure"[21] has led the development of new approaches to criticism that are focused on videogames as well as adapting, repurposing and proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about videogames.[22][23] A recent approach towards game studies starts with an analysis of interface structures and challenges the keyboard-mouse paradigm with what is called a "ludic interface".

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 1991 book Computers as Theatre, while principally focused on applying tenets of theatre criticism to the design of human-computer interfaces, describes how videogames are the natural result of the "capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate" 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 the many ideas and principles. 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 (1997) describes the computer as a new medium for the practice of storytelling. 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).

Jesper Juul's Half-Real (2005) 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 way." Ian 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 (2006), he 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. The studies on video games and sexuality suggests that exposure to the sexualized phantasmagorias of females in video games might consequence in gender stereotyping of females by both males and females.[24]

Industry and engineering approach[edit]

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. 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 Façade, an interactive drama whose design and development resulted in contributions to the field of AI (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 (or for some players, challenging) enough to learn and play? Is the game innovative or does it provide the player with 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 gaming experience from the player's point of view (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 (2005) borrowing from the literature on software patterns in software engineering toward creating patterns for gameplay. Also, Bateman and Boon, using Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, 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.[25]

Other areas of research[edit]

As is common with most academic disciplines, there are a number of more specialized areas or sub-domains of study.

Video game pre-history[edit]

An emerging field of study (Oliver Grau, 2004, and others) looks at the "pre-history" of video games, suggesting that the origins of modern digital games 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.[26]

Games and aging[edit]

In light of population ageing, there has been an interest into the use of games to improve the overall health and social connectedness of ageing players. For example, Adam Gazzaley and his team have designed NeuroRacer (a game that improves cognitive tasks outside of the game among its 60+ year old participants[27]), while the AARP has organized a game jam to improve older people's social connections.[28] Researchers such as Sarah Mosberg Iversen have argued that most of the academic work on games and ageing has been informed by notions of economical productivity (Iversen 2014), while Bob De Schutter and Vero Vanden Abeele have suggested a game design approach that is not focused on age-related decline but instead is rooted in the positive aspects of older age (De Schutter & Vanden Abeele 2015).

Virtual economies in gaming[edit]

Main article: Virtual economy

Massive multiplayer online games can give economists clues about the real world. Markets based on digital information can be fully tracked as they are used by players, and thus real problems in the economy, such as inflation, deflation and even recession. The solutions the game designers come up with can therefore be studied with full information, and experiments can be performed where the economy can be studied as a whole. These games allow the economists to be omniscient, they can find every piece of information they need to study the economy, while in the real world they have to work with presumptions.

Former Finance Minister of Greece and Valve's in-house economist Yanis Varoufakis studied EVE Online and argued that video game communities give economists a venue for experimenting and simulating the economies of the future.[29] [30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Huizinga, Johan (1938). Homo Ludens. N.V: Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink & zoon. 
  2. ^ Mayer, Richard (29 May 2016). "Three Genres of Game Research". Design ToolBox. Retrieved 17 June 2016. 
  3. ^ Konzack, Lars (2007). "Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research". The Players' Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and gaming. 
  4. ^ Culin, S. (1907). Games of the North American Indians. Twenty fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903. Government Printing Office: 1-840.
  5. ^ Homo Ludens
  6. ^ Frasca, Gonzalo. "LUDOLOGY MEETS NARRATOLOGY: Similitude and Differences between (video)games and Narrative." Parnasso 3 (1999)
  7. ^ Konzack, Lars (2007). "Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research" in Williams & Smith (ed.) The Players' Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and gaming. McFarland.
  8. ^ Fullerton, Tracy (2005). The Play's the Thing: Practicing Play as Community Foundation and Design Technique (PDF). Vancouver, Canada: DiGRA. 
  9. ^ Ito, Kenji (2005). Possibilities of Non-Commercial Games: The Case of Amateur Role Playing Games Designers in Japan (PDF). Vancouver, Canada: DiGRA. pp. 135–145. 
  10. ^ Williams, D (2005). "Bridging the methodological divide in game research". Simulation & Gaming. 36 (4): 447–463. doi:10.1177/1046878105282275. 
  11. ^ Feshbach, Seymour, and Robert D. Singer. Television and Aggression; an Experimental Field Study. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1971
  12. ^ Anderson, C. A., and B. J. Bushman. "Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature." Psychological Science 12.5 (2001): 353-59.
  13. ^ Ferguson, C. J., S. M. Rueda, A. M. Cruz, D. E. Ferguson, S. Fritz, and S. M. Smith. "Violent Video Games and Aggression: Causal Relationship or Byproduct of Family Violence and Intrinsic Violence Motivation?" Criminal Justice and Behavior 35.3 (2008): 311-32.
  14. ^ Kim, Amy Jo. "Smart Gamification". Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  15. ^ McGonigal, Jane (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press. 
  16. ^ Borowiecki, Karol J. and Juan Prieto-Rodriguez (2015). Video Games Playing: A substitute for cultural consumptions? Journal of Cultural Economics, 39(3): 239-58.
  17. ^ Crawford, G. (2012). Video Gamers. London: Routledge. 
  18. ^ Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play Between Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press. 
  19. ^ Pearce, Celia. "Theory Wars: An Argument Against Arguments in the So-called Ludology/Narratology Debate." Simon Fraser University. Summit, 30 May 2005.
  20. ^ Frasca, Gonzalo. "LUDOLOGISTS LOVE STORIES, TOO: NOTES FROM A DEBATE THAT NEVER TOOK PLACE." Level Up (2003): 92-99. DiGRA. Web. <>.
  21. ^ Aarseth, Espen (2001). "Computer Game Studies, Year One". Game Studies 1 (1).
  22. ^ Konzack, Lars (2002). Computer Game Criticism: A Method for Computer Game analysis. In Mäyrä (ed.) CGDC Conference Proceedings. Tampere University Press. p. 89-100.
  23. ^ Costikyan, greg (2002). I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games. In Mäyrä (ed.) CGDC Conference Proceedings. Tampere University Press. p. 9-34.
  24. ^ Raj, Sony Jalarajan; Kalorth, Nithin; Kim, Jongsung (2014). "THE VIDEO GAMER'S DILEMMA: ENTERTAINMENT VERSUS MORALITY" (PDF). ResearchersWorld -Journal of Arts, Science & Commerce: 1–7. 
  25. ^ Bateman, C.; Boon, R. (2006). 21st Century Game Design. Hingham, Mass: Charles River Media. 
  26. ^ Grau, Oliver (2004). Virtual Art. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-57223-1. 
  27. ^ Adam Gazzaley (September 4, 2013). "NeuroRacer Study". University of California, San Francisco: Gazzaley Lab. Retrieved 2013-09-06. 
  28. ^ "AARP teams up with students designing games for 50 plus". Miami University. 2016-03-17. Retrieved 2016-03-22. 
  29. ^
  30. ^

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