Bjarke Liboriussen

Bjarke Liboriussen is an assistant professor in digital and creative media at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. His research focuses on two main areas: games and the creative industries. Theoretical fuel is often drawn from the philosophy of technology. Contact: bl1895 at gmail dot com

Paul Martin

Paul Martin is an Assistant Professor in Digital Media and Communications at University of Nottingham Ningbo China. His current research is in digital game form and meaning, Chinese gaming, and Japanese popular culture.

Contact: paul dot martin at nottingham dot edu dot cn

Regional Game Studies

by Bjarke Liboriussen, Paul Martin

Keywords

Boundary work, field, globalization, glocalization, internationalization, philosophy of space and place, postcolonialism, regionalism.

 

Abstract

In the last few years there has been an increase in game scholarship conducted in and focussed on areas outside of Western Europe and North America. This scholarship has been recognized and supported by the establishment of regional research networks and regular regional conferences, and has been collected in edited books and journal special issues. Drawing on Edward Casey’s philosophical history of space and place we label this trend “regional game studies” and identify in it a number of general characteristics: regional game studies investigates games and gaming cultures at a range of scales and identifies connections across and between these scales; it highlights and addresses unequal global relations within gaming culture and within the academic study of games; and it enriches the field with new perspectives drawn from regional cultural contexts. The article provides a number of examples of regional game scholarship that demonstrate these characteristics and illustrate the potential of regional game studies to influence game scholarship and shape game studies as a field.

 

Short description

Game studies is undergoing a regional turn marked by an increase in research conducted in and focussed on areas outside of Western Europe and North America. The development of “regional game studies” will extend the field’s ability to engage with important global issues and enrich game studies with new perspectives and concepts.

 

The academic field of game studies has entered a new phase of growth and change. New kinds of institutions, events and publications are proliferating. In 2015, a chapter for Europe’s German-speaking countries (Austria, Germany and Switzerland) was added to the list of Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) subdivisions. At the time of writing, there are also Australian, Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, Israeli, Japanese, Turkish and United Kingdom DiGRA chapters, and The Canadian Game Studies Association/ l’Association canadienne d’études vidéoludiques provides a North American example of a game studies network. 2010 saw the first Nordic DiGRA conference and 2014 saw the first annual Central and Eastern European Game Studies conference. Donovan’s (2010) popular and comprehensive monograph on video game history was written with the explicit intention of balancing a tendency to write “US rather than global histories” (p. xiii). The same attention to alternative histories (plural) that do not focus exclusively on the USA permeates both the annual Conference on the History of Games, first held in 2013, and edited collections such as Gaming Cultures and Place in Asia-Pacific (Hjorth & Chan, 2009), Gaming Globally (Huntemann & Aslinger, 2013) and Videogames Around the World (Wolf, 2015). Special issues of Games and Culture (Hjorth, 2008; Liboriussen & Martin, 2016), the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research (Lim, 2012) and the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds (Chakraborti, Opoku-Agyemang, & Roy, 2015) explore game-making, games and gaming in non-Western settings.

This ongoing phase of growth and change not only introduces new perspectives and voices into game studies, it also holds the potential to increase the field’s political relevance by advancing a form of game scholarship more attuned to the challenges of globalization, internationalization and postcolonialism. In this article we seek to focus attention on this trend and in doing so help game studies to further develop its global political relevance and responsibilities. We do this firstly by naming this trend. Names matter, to insiders as well as to external observers, because names shape perception and guide attention. The right name can focus and strengthen that which is named. We could label contemporary game studies “global,” “glocal” or “international” but the name we will be arguing for here is “regional game studies.” By naming these trends as regional game studies we seek to characterize a growing body of research that investigates games and gaming cultures at a range of geocultural scales, identifies connections across and between these scales, highlights and addresses unequal global power relations within gaming culture and within the academic study of games, and enriches the field with new perspectives drawn from regional cultural contexts.   

Our argument is laid out in the following way: first, we will draw on the philosophy of space and place to specify exactly what we mean by “regional.” We will then explain why regional is a more useful designation than alternatives such as “international,” “local,” or “glocal.” With the conceptual groundwork in place, we then turn to ways of actually doing regional game studies. Recent work on ludic representations of India shows how postcolonial theory can provide some types of regional game studies with a strong theoretical basis. In other examples, game studies is enriched by the development and employment of concepts from outside the traditional academic centres of Western Europe and North America. We conclude by considering the opportunities and challenges ahead.

The Region

The kind of game studies just outlined attends to local places and cultures but also, at least to some extent, to how the local connects with higher-order economic, cultural and political structures. These higher-order structures include the state as well as supra- and trans-national entities such as global markets, trade blocs, ethnolinguistic groups, academic networks and intergovernmental organizations. With “regional” we want to direct attention to local places but also to how places connect with each other and with such higher-order structures. To use Castell’s (2010) terminology: although real people live and work in a space of places increasingly disjointed from the computerized space of flows that sustains capital, the space of flows “relies on the development of localities as nodes of . . . communication networks” (p. xxii, emphases in original). Space and time might be undergoing compression (into a space of flows) but are materially underpinned by a space of places. Institutionalized scholarship circulates in the space of flows supported by cheap international travel, internationalization of universities, online journal publication and repositories, and global publication infrastructure, but it also happens in particular places. Commonsensical and reassuring as that may sound, space-time compression does not affect all social groups (or even all academics) in the same way, an issue Massey (1991) highlights by coining the evocative term power-geometry and calling for “[a] progressive sense of place . . . a global sense of the local, a global sense of place” (p. 29). We see in regional game studies the potential to inscribe in game studies this progressive sense of place or, to shift into a philosophical vocabulary, to develop an academic field that is sensitive to the complex dynamics between space and place.

The conceptual pair of space and place can be traced throughout the history of philosophy. We will be relying here on the work of Casey who has published extensively on that history throughout his career (see Casey 1993, 1997a and 1997b). Casey’s overarching project is to restore the role of place in human life. Broadly speaking, place points towards aspects of human existence that are near, intimate, rooted and limited, whereas space points outwards to the far, abstract and open-ended. Casey’s philosophical history of the space-place dichotomy can be summed up as follows: a sense of living in place (which he documents with reference to philosophy as well as to earlier origin myths) gradually gives way to a sense of living in space. This complex transition culminates with modern conceptions of space such as Cartesian res extensa and Newtonian absolute space. Place is then rediscovered by various philosophical routes from as early as Kant although rediscovery accelerates in the 20th century. Region appears in Casey’s investigation as an intermediary concept between space and place, offering us a particular conceptualisation of region that fits very well with our purpose of refocusing the attention of game studies.

The region first appears in Casey’s history with Plato where it plays a somewhat paradoxical role as an organizing principle that also includes that which it organizes; not quite space in the contemporary sense of empty vessel, not quite place either. Casey (1997b) thus describes Plato’s region as a “locatory matrix for things” (p. 34), a concept “between space and place” (p. 41). Passing swiftly over space’s dominance in the early modern era, the concept of region reappears in two separate philosophical ways of rediscovering place. First, in a micro-tradition from Kant to Merleau-Ponty with a focus on the role of embodiment. Being in a region as a body gives direction to the world. Casey notes that the region, in Kant’s usage, “cannot be exhaustively analyzed on a purely positional basis [but] involves a manifest directedness” (p. 207).

Casey (1997b) finds a second way of employing region in Heidegger’s rediscovery of place. In contrast to the micro-tradition from Kant to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger rediscovers place without recourse to the body. Casey sees Heidegger’s usage of the region as “a paradigm of the delicate balance Heidegger wishes to strike in general between the contribution of the human subject and the pregivenness of its surroundings” (p. 249). As such, and by contrast to place, the region “is too massively public to be the mere product of any individual Dasein’s constitutive activity” (p. 250). This line of thought resurfaces in Deleuze and Guattari’s model of nomad space: “characteristic nomadic space is an entire region--a steppe, a desert, a sea--that, despite its enormity, is not a strictly measurable space with definite borders” (p. 304). Since entities such as steppes and deserts are too big to be experienced as places, the nomad is not exactly placed but rather “immersed” in nomad space (p. 306).

The conceptualization of a region we take from this short trip through the history of philosophy is one where the regional is found between concrete place and abstract space (Plato and others), where regions are relational rather than positional (Kant) and have diffuse borders (Deleuze and Guattari), and where the regional evokes the social (Heidegger’s public).

Alternatives to “Regional”

These characteristics of the region can be seen in the trend in game studies outlined at the start of this article. It would be possible to label this trend “global,” “international,” “local,” “glocalized,” or “situated” game studies, but we claim that theorizing this trend in relation to the region rather than these alternatives is the best route for game studies to realize its global political relevance, and we offer three reasons for this.

First, we prefer regional over the less flexible “international.” Unlike the nation, the region’s borders cannot be rigorously defined. This flexibility allows for the clustering of concepts, gaming practices, games and research networks that are national, supranational, transnational or subnational, and the fruitful relationships between regions existing at each of these scales. As Dann points out, the region “is the territory of the social historian, varying in its size and structure depending on the object of research” (quoted in Agnew, 2001, p. 201). It may be objected that this kind of flexibility leads to chaos rather than complexity, however so long as one keeps in mind that regions are always defined for specific purposes, and so long as we know the purpose to which a particular regional specification is being put, the flexibility of scale outweighs the disadvantages of indeterminacy. Allen, Massey and Cochrane (1998) argue that regions “only exist in relation to particular criteria. They are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered; they are our (and others’) constructions” (pp. 1-2). Far from making the region meaningless the region’s indeterminacy in fact forces us to consider any particular regional designation in terms of the wider political project that defines it as such. Clustering a body of scholarship under the category “East Asian game studies,” for example, requires a certain deliberateness and reflection on the criteria that go into designating this region in this way. Chua (2004), for example, discusses East Asia in terms of the production, dissemination and consumption of music and television in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and China. This establishes a coherent region based on a shared pop culture, but it is certainly not the only way to characterise “East Asia.” A different research project might identify a different region based on related languages, or a shared Confucian heritage, or level of industrialisation, and each of these projects would include different places in this area of the world.

Second, we prefer regional over the less public “local.” “Local” is often used to describe the locus of the everyday and of the body. Apperley (2010) uses “local” in this sense when he calls for a “situated” form of game research. The local is a perfectly valid spatial register to locate research, and a great deal of the research that we are characterising as regional game studies is local in this sense. But when editors, conference organisers and writers attempt to synthesise and foreground this “local” research they usually make use of the region. Local research projects on gaming cultures in specific internet cafes and development studios become a special issue on gaming in the Asia Pacific; scholars located in particular schools in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia establish an annual Central and Eastern European regional conference. By contextualising research in terms of its region this research is highlighted and has a greater chance of influencing game scholarship more generally.

But one might respond that this relationship between different scales is also captured in the term “glocal.” “Globalization discourse [is],” as Huggan (2013) remarks, “[haunted by] local/global binaries” (p. 551). The term “glocal” was invented to capture those tensions between the local and the global in a number of spheres--production and consumption, urban development, marketing and management (Roudometof, 2015)--but the term does not fully account for the intermediary scales between the local and the global. The glocal points to one particular line in Massey’s power-geometries--that between the most particularised scale of human life, the local--and the most generalised, the global. While it is possible to use the term in a more nuanced analysis, it does not immediately suggest the tensions and connections between the local and other entities such as: other localities, the nation in which it is located, other nations, subnational and transnational institutions, or supranational organisations. “Glocalized game studies,” then, would be less well-equipped to integrate game scholarship into the politics of the region. The local has, of course, its own politics, but it is the politics of the everyday as theorised by de Certeau, the Situationists and others. As we have seen, for Heidegger, the region is “massively public,” referring to a more politically coherent, historically stable and visible sphere of social life. When we refer to regional game studies we are not simply referring to scholarship that explicitly situates itself in a particular locality. We are referring to the way in which such situatedness intersects with the power-geometries that cut across the local, national, regional and global.

A final reason to reject “glocalization” is that this term is often discussed as a more or less conscious and strategic counter-reaction to the threat of the homogenizing global (e.g. in Robertson, 1992). This is certainly a part of what is happening in game studies. Chakraborti et al. (2015), for example, explicitly aim at challenging “a decidedly Anglo-American bias” in game studies (p. 137). This is valuable work but regional game studies is not necessarily a movement of resistance against some putative globalizing (or “grobalizing” [Ritzer, 2004]) game studies. We hope with “regional” to guide attention to power-geometry without specifying a particular model of power relations, for example one in which a hegemonic centre dominates its periphery. A centre-periphery model of power might, however, be wholly appropriate in some cases of regional game studies, as demonstrated by very recent work on ludic representations of India. In the next section we will be discussing critical interventions by Chakraborti (2015) and Mukherjee (2015, 2016) that represent a kind of regional game studies guided broadly by a centre-periphery model of power and more specifically by postcolonial theory.[i]

Postcolonial Game Studies

In his article “From destination to nation and back: The hyperreal journey of incredible India,” Chakraborti (2015) articulates a centre-periphery model of power by focusing on the First World’s hegemony over the Third World. The article begins with the words “In a First World that is constantly trying to shake off the stigma of colonialism” (p. 184) and it might seem for a moment as if Chakraborti writes from within the First World: he consciously aligns his analysis with an established, textual approach to games (as put forward by Carr et al., 2006) and his publication is the outcome of a project founded by the British Council (Chakraborti et al., 2015, p. 137). A regional subjectivity could perhaps have been articulated here, in the sense of an in-between subjectivity hovering between a First World associated with mobility and digital information and communications technology (Castell’s space of flows) and a Third World associated with place. Chakraborti, however, quickly chooses sides. He aligns himself with “those who do not fall into the white Euro-/western/centric models of civilization and culture” (p. 184) and self-identifies as a “Third World [academic]” (p. 184). From that position, Chakraborti expresses disbelief at the crassness of Indian stereotypes in a number of digital games. His main analytical point is that contemporary digital games set in India repeat a hegemonic, colonial logic established during the times of British rule. The practice of tiger hunting was, for example, adopted by the British colonialists as a means of displaying the power to save Indians from indigenous threats that they could not themselves take care of. The same logic reappears not only in 1984, when a British agent travels to India to help the Indian government prepare for storming of the Golden Temple, but also in video games where Indians need a travelling foreigner to save them, a role taken on by the game’s player. This is game studies in a regional mode where close attention is paid not only to local culture but also to the complex power relations in which both the game and its player are involved.

Also Mukherjee (2015, 2016) uses a centre-periphery model of power to analyze ludic representations of India. Where Chakraborti widens the scope by referring to the First and Third Worlds, Mukherjee narrows it by focusing on the centre in its imperial phase; as Brennan explains (2008), “The basic difference between colonialism and imperialism . . . is that imperialism is a later and more systematic organization of the foreign exploitation pioneered by colonialism” (p. 47). For Mukherjee (2015), the relationship between imperial centres and peripheral colonies is one in which “the peripheral spaces exist to supply the centre” (p. 302), and this guides Mukherjee (2016) towards thinking about how games produced in global centres of power and depicting peripheral countries in very casual ways might be experienced by players from those very countries; Mukherjee (2016) cites India, Syria (p. 2) Iraq and Zaire (p. 8) as examples. A lot of Mukherjee’s criticism thus consists of pointing to unreflective use of stereotype but he also reflects on ways in which digital games afford resistance against such stereotype, as a player demonstrates by setting their own “extreme” goal of winning a game of Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly, 2012): “I want to convert Europe to Islam!” (Mukherjee 2015, p. 307). Such resistive playing strategies are, however, always constrained by the game: “Alternative narratives can be written into being in the game world but only within the system that the game provides” (p. 15). Here Mukherjee’s point about the complexities of a resistance that draws on that which it resists resonates with Mishra and Hodge’s (1993) point about postcolonial writers performing their critique through the novel:

beneath post-colonial literature lies the might of the novel form. . . . The European bourgeois novel comes with a pre-existent philosophical apparatus that implicitly questions the representation of history to the extent that any counter-historical move must begin with a reading of the capacities of the novelistic genre itself. (p. 280)

Readings of the capacities of the game form itself have been at the forefront of contemporary game studies from the field’s inception. What becomes clearer with Mukherjee’s (2016) intervention is the potential of politicizing formalist work on those capacities.

Both Chakraborti and Mukherjee align their analyses with postcolonialism and that seems an obvious move indeed for their particular purposes. Chakraborti concludes, however, in a way that points beyond postcolonialism and can be used to reinforce our choice of “regional” as the most appropriate umbrella term for the tendency in game studies we wish to explore and support. In his conclusion, Chakraborti brings in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012). Set in 2025, the game initially sends its player to India to defend it against Chinese invasion; the player’s taking on the role of a NATO commando reinforces the pattern of India being unable to defend itself. “Perhaps the real fear of such representations,” Chakraborti (2015) speculates, “is that these eastern realms [India and China] may resolve their differences and together assert an end to continued colonising and neocolonizing attempts of the West” (p. 199). In other words: What if the periphery became the centre? A flourish of literature and journalism dealing with the rise of Asia (and in particular of China) asks the same question, often pointing to the fact that in the grand scheme of history, Europe’s global centrality--followed by the centrality of the USA--is of relatively recent date (see, for example, Jacques, 2012). The question of a rising China is being raised at the very centre of the Western empire today, as exemplified by the so-called pivot to Asia and by how Republican candidates for the United States presidency discussed China’s role in the global economy in the 2015-2016 debate season. To small South East Asian countries, the question of China as a power centre is a pressing one, and these countries might be hoping for a “deimperialization” of China (Chen, 2010). The centre-periphery model of power that sustained early postcolonial studies (for example, Mishra & Hodge, 1993) might work well for analysis of ludic representations of India, the quintessential postcolonial country, but as the China example suggests, centre and periphery relationships cannot always be equated with former colonizer and former colony, First World and Third World. Game scholars must therefore exert caution before extending the centre-periphery model to other settings and consider alternative power-geometries. Here, when researching something as contemporary as video games, it might become necessary to explore contemporary theory set at the constantly evolving and sometimes rather bewildering crossroads of postcolonial studies and global studies (see Brennan, 2008 and Huggan, 2013 for introductions). The need to seek theoretical support at this crossroads (rather than in “pure” postcolonial studies) is increased by postcolonial theorists’ relative slowness in responding to “the implications of global capitalism for their theoretical considerations of identity, nationalism, and (neo)colonial power” (Behdad, 2013, p. 692; see also Brennan, 2008, p. 49).

Regional Concepts

Not all regional game studies involves an explicit postcolonial stance. One outcome of the regional turn in regional game studies is the integration of new concepts into the field. We are already seeing examples of “regional” concepts being brought to bear on topics and games that are already familiar objects of study in game scholarship. By “regional concepts” we broadly mean concepts that have been developed in non-Western epistemologies and social formations. The introduction of these concepts into game scholarship may be more or less radical: at one end of the scale simply introducing new and perhaps helpful frameworks into game studies discourse, at the other putting into question how we think of fundamental game studies concepts such as play and games. The idea of non-Western epistemologies transforming academic disciplines is not new. Hviding (2003), for example, discusses the relationship between interdisciplinarity and regionality in the context of Pacific Island studies. He takes the position that interdisciplinarity is not simply the combination of different methods and approaches but also a force that causes “the epistemological, methodological, and institutional boundaries between disciplines to be disturbed” (p. 43). His conception of interdisciplinarity, however, goes beyond academia to take in the worldviews of the Pacific Islanders, worldviews that may be in many ways incommensurable with orthodox theories and methods in academia. Attention to the region is obviously central to a field such as Pacific Island studies, but the author claims that traditionally the epistemologies of the Islanders themselves were an object of study rather than formative of disciplinary knowledge. He sees a radical form of interdisciplinarity changing this relationship, and thinks of this as part of the decolonization of Pacific studies. Hviding describes here how a regional approach might alter how we think about our object of analysis and so change the field itself.

We are not arguing that all regional game studies is radically transformative in Hviding’s (2003) sense. The importance of regional concepts can be framed more pragmatically by briefly considering the work that produces the interdisciplinary field of game studies. Some of this work is in a sense external to research itself. It consists, for example, of naming schools, setting research agendas at an institutional and national level, hiring personnel and setting systems of promotion. This is what Gieryn (1983) would refer to as boundary work. The recent establishment of regional networks is a particularly relevant and visible example of boundary work that furthers game studies’ regional turn. The programmes and announcements issued by such networks provide very direct opportunities to shape the thinking and discourse around regional game studies. In their 2014 call for participation, the organizers of the first Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference highlighted both how games produced in the region differed from those originating “in the well-documented areas such as the U.S. or Japan” and how game scholarship in the region “has . . . traced a path different from the ‘mainstream’ of game studies represented by the U.S., the U.K. and Scandinavia” (CEEGS, 2014, n. pag.). Here centre-periphery models are at play but rather than describing itself as peripheral in general, this example of regional thinking distinguishes between centres of production and centres of scholarship. Still, this thinking in terms of centres and peripheries sets a different tone than next year’s conference held under the headline Distributed Game Studies? (question mark included). The 2015 call for participation thus “borrowed [a concept] from computer science via software studies [distributed computing]” with the intention of “[emphasising] networking and decentralisation” (CEEGS, 2015, n. pag.). The call for participation continues: “Components of a distributed system work and interact in synergy in order to achieve a common goal; consist of components on networked hosts that interact via middleware so that they appear as an integrated facility” (CEEGS, 2015, n. pag.). The software metaphors are a bit too suggestive of an oddly friction-free kind of scholarship for our taste--one of the reasons why we prefer “regional game studies” is because it simultaneously suggests the local and its power relations with higher-level structures--but the mention of “networking and decentralisation” and, especially, the metaphor of “middleware” resonates with the regional game studies we are describing and promoting here. Despite the nuances we have pointed out, the 2014 and 2015 calls for participation are both examples of boundary work that strengthens regional game studies.

Apart from being constructed through external boundary work, game studies is also constituted internally through the analytical meetings of objects and concepts. Bal (2009) argues that “[i]nterdisciplinarity in the humanities should seek its heuristic and methodological basis in concepts rather than in methods” (p. 13) and offers her own brand of cultural analysis as an example. In the following, Bal (2002) compares the task of the cultural analyst to that of the travelling anthropologist. Here the interdisciplinary academic field is regarded from the inside of analytical work rather than through the lens of external boundary work:

At first sight, the object [constructed by cultural criticism] is simpler than anthropology’s: a text, a piece of music, a film, a painting. But, after returning from your travels, the object constructed turns out to no longer be the “thing” that so fascinated you when you chose it. It has become a living creature, embedded in all the questions and considerations that the mud of your travel spattered onto it, and that surround it like a “field.” (p. 4)

Bal’s metaphors of travels, mud and fields suggest how regional concepts are potentially not only welcome addition to the analytical vocabulary of game studies but can also help shape the field itself.

Perhaps the most famous example of non-Western epistemologies challenging conventional notions of play comes in Geertz’s (1973) essay “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” The way that Balinese cockfighters conceive of gambling allows Geertz in that essay to advance an alternative to gambling as understood in terms of a Benthamite utilitarianism. The essay has since been used by several game scholars to contest the idea of games as separate from everyday life (e.g. O'Donnell, 2014; Turner, 2006). The conception of play as entwined with everyday life as “metasocial commentary” (Geertz, 1973, p. 448) is a regional concept in the sense that we are using the term here. “Deep play” is a concept that is in a sense indigenous to the Balinese village that Geertz describes in his essay. Geertz is clear that he is not revealing something hidden from the Balinese but that his informants are fully aware of the meaning of cockfighting as he describes it in his essay. This is not to say that the concept can only be found in this regional context. There are no doubt many instances of play in other regional settings that could be analyzed in a similar fashion and could have led to something like Geertz’s conceptualization of deep play. But it is precisely because such concepts can be found in different regional settings that essays like Geertz’s are theoretically influential and not just interesting one-off case studies.

By the time people started writing about digital games, the Balinese conception of deep play had, thanks to Geertz’s essay, already become part of the theoretical armoury of social scientists and humanists. Game studies need not be content, however, with inheriting such concepts from anthropology. A game studies that consciously and rigorously explores regional concepts can itself generate insights that shift how we think of our objects of study.

Three examples give an idea of the range of ways in which scholars might employ regional concepts to think through familiar problems in game studies. Mukherjee (2012) compares the avatar as a concept in Hindu philosophy and a concept in game culture. “Avatar” has been used to denote the player’s in-game character in a fairly unreflective way in much games discourse, especially amongst game designers but also, Mukherjee claims, in “early game studies” (n. pag.). By attending to the characteristics of the avatar in Hindu philosophy--particularly in relation to shared identities and cyclic recurrence--the concept can add nuance to theories of player-character identification such as those of Frasca (2006) and Calleja (2011). The Hindu concept of the avatar gives us, Mukherjee argues, a way of theorizing the complex forms of identification and becoming that are a central aspect of many digital games. While Mukherjee’s paper does not radically contest already existing theorizations of the avatar in game studies it adds a different strand to these theorizations and serves as a good example of the potential that regional game studies has in introducing different perspectives into the field.

While not as prevalent as the avatar, the gold farmer is another familiar figure in game scholarship and game research. Liboriussen (2016) uses the Chinese concept of shanzhai to approach this familiar type from a new perspective. Often associated with both comical and ingenious Chinese copies of Western consumer electronics, shanzhai is also associated with resistance and independence. Based on interviews with “amateur gold farmers” in East China--middle class players who engage intermittently in small-scale real money trading--Liboriussen finds that these players understand their own practices as a kind of ingenuity that is, for his informants, uniquely Chinese, a perspective that he links to shanzhai. This perspective is local and situated, thinking of gold farming from the perspective of people who engage in that practice, but it is also regional, connecting amateur gold farmers’ reflection on their own practice to China’s rapidly changing role in the world.

Martin’s (2016) analysis of Resident Evil 5 (Capcom, 2009) is an example of game criticism that takes a region-specific approach. Rather than analysing the game’s controversial representations of race through the lens of European postcolonialism or North American racial politics, the article employs the lens of Japanese racial discourse and in so doing presents a reading that has not been considered in previous academic engagement with the game. While Japanese racial discourse is related to European and North American conceptualizations of Blackness and Whiteness, it is complicated by a Japanese subjectivity that conceives of itself as both not-Black and not-White. This is not a purely “local” concept of race, but one where the national history of Japan intersects with the regional politics of East Asia and this region’s historical connections to Europe.

Regional Game Studies: Opportunities and Challenges

This article has identified significant developments over the last couple of years in game scholarship outside Western Europe and North America. We claim that naming these developments “regional game studies” gives them a coherent identity that helps pull focus on research that falls within this category. Naming also helps to shape or characterize these developments in such a way that the opportunities outlined in this article can be more fully realized. However, we are also aware of the dangers of naming a sub-field, and for the remainder of the article will discuss not only the opportunities of regional game studies but also some of these dangers and how they might be mitigated.

In naming particular scholars and pieces of research “regional” we are in danger of falling into a naïve essentialism. Scholars may be affiliated with a particular region in a number of ways--by birth, heritage, current location, academic interest, training, and so forth. To be clear: we are not claiming that a scholar must or indeed can solely by virtue of this affiliation speak about or on behalf of that region’s culture or people. Being born in South-East Asia does not automatically make one an expert on South-East Asian gaming cultures; and a scholar born in South-East Asia can obviously conduct research about topics other than South-East Asia. Nor are we claiming that only people born in or located in a particular region can write about that region. Our claim is that the proliferation of research centres and networks outside of Western Europe and North America has the potential to generate new concepts and perspectives because it will be constituted by scholars with a greater range of regional affiliations. These affiliations will not be apparent in the work of all of these scholars, but it will in many, and this will enrich the field as a whole.

To describe some scholarship as “regional” could be seen as dismissive or, worse, as the validation of a centre-periphery model that characterises research from Europe and North America as fundamental; the substance to which regional research adds some interesting deviations and problems. This is certainly not our intention. Regional game studies is not simply exotic ornamentation for the “real” game studies of Western Europe and North America. We claim that in time regional game studies can make significant theoretical contributions to the field. However, the term regional allows us to hold onto the reality that game studies does have a centre--a concentration of intellectual resources in Western Europe and North America. The world is not flat, and there are significant challenges to the development of game scholarship conducted in, for example, regions of the global South, that are not encountered elsewhere. By acknowledging this we can identify some practical means of supporting game scholarship in different regions that take account of these different challenges. Translation and open access publication, for example, are important means of supporting the development of game studies in non-English speaking regions where universities’ journal and library access may be limited. Translation is also important in the other direction, to allow research conducted in languages other than English to influence the development of the field.

We see the opportunities of regional game studies right across the different methodological approaches and perspectives in the interdisciplinary field of game studies. It is understandable that regional approaches to games tend to adopt a player or player-culture perspective. This kind of research has identified and theorized differences in gaming cultures in different regional contexts across the world (e.g. Apperley, 2010; Huhh, 2008; Ng, 2006). But there is much terrain to be explored in regional criticism--analysing games-as-texts from regional perspectives. We see this holding much potential for development over the next few years.

The recent work informed by postcolonialism reviewed here gives us grounds for optimism. We caution, however, against centre-periphery models of power as a default option and suggest instead to let thought be guided by the more flexible notion of power-geometry--a geometry that may or may not take the shape of a centre-periphery as it comes into focus through analysis. A regional game studies thus informed, and simultaneously taking aim at the local and how that local connects with other structures, might be harder to do than a game studies relying on more straightforward models of the world. Our field might have to engage with complex theory at the crossroads of postcolonial studies and globalization studies to gain a firm theoretical basis for this kind of regional work; we suspect, for example, that critical regionalism--described by its strongest proponent, Spivak, “as a device for ‘rewriting postcolonialism into globality’” (Huggan 2013, quoting Spivak, p. 550)--would be well worth investing time and energy in. But this kind of hard work will be worth our while if it helps game studies to further develop its global political relevance and responsibilities.

 

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[i] We focus on representations of India here but it should be noted that Langer (2008) also relies on a distinction between “center and periphery” (as well as “distinctions between civilized and savage, self and other,” p. 87) in her postcolonial critique of World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004).


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