Espen Aarseth

Editor-in-Chief, Game Studies.

Just Games

by Espen Aarseth

Here is an announcement: From the next issue, Game Studies actively welcomes articles on games in general, and will not be limited to an empirical focus on digital games. It is time to recognize that the study of games cannot and should not be segregated into digital and non-digital, and for most of the field, in practice, as well as in theory, this has never been so. Probably the most influential game in computer game history, Dungeons & Dragons, was not itself digital. It used a human computer, like many other types of games. Yet, it directly inspired numerous digital games and game genres, from Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure, via Bartle and Thrubshaw’s MUD (and every MMORPG thereafter) and all the different genres where characters level up, players roleplay, etc.; too many to mention. To exclude the study of D&D (and war games, roleplay, board games, mechanical arcade games, card, dice, and gambling games) from this journal (and the field) does not make good, academic sense. It is time to embrace the study of all games and all gameplay phenomena, and actively promote this inclusivity. This is of course an ideal; in practice, it may not be that easy. But the benefits should be clear, and they far outweigh the costs. And, yes, we still need exclusive studies on games that are digital, as well as on board games, LARPs, etc., but the almost trivial distinction between digital and non-digital cannot be an overriding factor, if we are interested in more than one type of game. Counter-Strike and Paintball have as much in common as they have differences, and more in common with each other than either has with chess or Tetris or Adventure.

So, what is a game? That is an old question with many answers, none of them entirely satisfactory (which is a good thing). In the view of perhaps the most influential thinkers of the field (who never addressed the digital), Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, games are activities separate from the rest of human life. But their definitions are flawed, as pointed out by Jacques Ehrmann many decades ago. In fact, ‘game’ and ‘play’ are not scientific terms, but vernacular words whose meaning changes over time, and is given by ordinary people through their use of language. To try to fix them is a good intellectual exercise, but not something a researcher will ever be able to do. Nor is it vital for the health of the field, but more likely quite counter-productive, if it could be done. Other fields, from literature and media to planetology and even biology, cannot sufficiently define their central objects either, and they are none the worse for it. The day we can formally define what a game is, that is the day games become uninteresting for intellectual inquiry.

How should game studies (and Game Studies) determine its boundaries? This is a pragmatic question, not a scientific one. It will also, as evident from this editorial, change over time. Games, claimed Huizinga and Caillois, are fixed in time and space, but this is not the case with today’s pervasive games, nor was it so, for centuries, with any kind of mediated games, such as postal chess and Sunday paper crosswords, hardly digital phenomena. And the great Roman games, the Ludi Romani, were bloody and fatal affairs which were designed for, among other things, teaching the public how one dies with dignity. Perhaps not strangely, Caillois and Huizinga had little to say about the most important play culture in world history. Its mere existence did not fit their romantic ideology very well.

But how can game researchers (and editors) in 2017 decide what is and isn’t game research? Perhaps the best principle is to treat ‘game’ as a perspective and not as an object or an activity. Anything can be turned into a game (even a game can be turned into another game quite easily) and so the determining factor is not the activity but the way one thinks about it, and how one labels it. (This may sound like an idea stolen from Bernard Suits, but it isn’t, since Suits was speaking of a specific attitude - really a behavior, that the player follows the rules - which makes little sense since people play games with many different attitudes and behaviors, and often at odds with the rules - if the game has rules at all).

The game-as-perspective perspective allows us to prioritize not based on material domain, or on type of activity, but on whether the phenomenon is interesting as ludic. Take sport. Should game studies include research on sport? eSport, probably, but sport sport? Rather than giving a yes or no answer, the better answer is, how relevant is the game perspective in this piece of research? Are the ludic aspects of the sport discussed, or something else entirely, say, the retirement life of sport professionals? Their earnings from advertising? Sport may be a difficult case, and there are others; what about children’s play? Animal play? The non-play aspects of educational games? Boundary work can be difficult and most of all, it is practice. Rules are often not enough. Selections must be made, and unhappiness sometimes must result. Stepping away from the digital as delimiter might seem like a wrong move, except that none of the boundary examples I have used is solved by it. (Yes, eSport is a sport; or, sport is a valid perspective on eSport.)

The move from computer games to games in general is about inclusion. The affected research communities already overlap, to the extent that it makes no sense to formally exclude them with the ‘computer’ or ‘digital’ label, which never made much historical, scientific, or intellectual sense at all.

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