Espen Aarseth

Editor-in-Chief, Game Studies.

Game Studies: How to play -- Ten play-tips for the aspiring game-studies scholar

by Espen Aarseth 

If you are a beginning player in the strange, interdisciplinary field of game studies, here are some tips and tricks that may make your life easier, as you strive to level up your academic avatar.

1. Don’t mention ‘the war’

If I had an EverQuest plat every time someone started their paper or dissertation with something about “ludology vs narratology,” or “ludologists vs narratologists”, then by now I could probably afford a Breastplate of the Righteous or perhaps even the Royal Velium Frosted Helmet. This trope is used as a touchstone by beginners to prove they know their way around the field, but -- without exception, the writer doesn’t have a clue, and the paper is typically about something entirely unrelated to the issue of whether games are narratives or not. What it does signal is that the writer feels the need to blend in, to show that they are aware of some stuff that has gone before (in those murky days of 1998-2001), but the effect is that they end up perpetuating the myth that there was a group of narrative theorists who had a quarrel with another group called ‘ludologists’. (This is not the place to explain that great misunderstanding, instead see Aarseth 2014, but suffice it to say that the so-called ludologists were all using narratology, whereas the so-called narratologists were not, with the possible exception of a little bit of Aristotle.) This is not at all to suggest that there should be no more discussion of the relation between games and stories, because there is very little actual, informed, productive disagreement in our field, both on that topic and many others, and room for much more. (Direct, vocal criticism is, or should be, a sign of respect. So perhaps there is too little of both?)

So instead, skip straight to what your paper or dissertation is trying to achieve, tell us who, if any, has written about this before, and how your contribution will be different. And, please, please don’t start with “The game industry is now bigger than Hollywood…” Nobody needs that information anymore.

2. Don’t assume other players share your background

Game researchers come from a number of different fields and disciplines, from education to business and far beyond, and the large majority does not come from game studies itself. If you are writing about games to your own home field; say, physical therapy or accounting studies, then it is a good idea to give your readers a quick introduction to the field of game studies or at least mention the perhaps curious fact that it actually exists. But if you are addressing a game studies venue, then skip that and instead explain where you are coming from. Games is the perfect interdisciplinary object, and no one can afford to assume that most others in this fragmented inter-field are familiar with their particular discipline and its methods. (I happen to be trained in narratology, and clearly, most game studies researchers are not, so I would never assume that they understand what narratology actually is.)

So, do spend some sentences explaining what discipline/field you are from, and why it is relevant to a broader audience. While we sometimes use the same words, they often do not have the same meanings from discipline to discipline -- the word ‘game’ comes to mind -- and by locating yourself in a scholarly tradition, you make it easier for your reader to understand that you may be using a term in a different but still legitimate way. But don’t spend half the paper! Introductions are supposed to be brief, not boring.

3. If you really want to go to that conference…

Peer reviewers for conferences are often {mean, stupid, mistaken, blind to your genius, or simply tired after a long day}, and so you may end up getting your excellent submission rejected through no fault of your own, and suddenly you find yourself with a hole in the calendar where that important conference trip should have been. Optimism is a virtue, as is the probably unfounded belief in the fundamental benevolence of reviewers, but virtue is not always enough, cunning is better. So: Never send just one abstract to a conference, if you really want to go -- two is better, four is best, if they allow it. Especially where the organizers are using only two reviewers (or heaven forbid, one), all it takes is one rotten review to ground you, if you only submitted one paper. You didn’t, did you?

And, if you get rejected for no good reason, complain! Sometimes it helps, and it teaches the conference organizers (who sometimes are inexperienced, let’s face it, this is a young field) that they should be more attentive to abusive reviewers, and to their own routines of review quality control. If you don’t complain, they never learn. Also, if a friend got rejected, consider making them co-author on your paper. It does not cost you anything, and perhaps the paper will be better? It’s great fun to work with others, and especially in the humanities; we don’t do it enough. Is the deadline already past? Submit a last-minute paper. Sometimes people withdraw, and organizers like to have a full schedule. It’s worth a try!

4. Don’t take the industry’s…

  • Money -- if you want to keep your integrity. As a researcher speaking publicly about game addiction, I cannot afford to be paid or funded by the game industry. If you are doing design research, this may not be a problem for you at all, but for those of us who are frequently interviewed by journalists and have to set the record straight on myths and false claims about what games do or lead to in society, it is vital to remain independent. If your role can be questioned, or shown to be double, you have already lost.
  • Non-disclosure agreements -- if you want to publish. Even in universities, and in technical universities especially, there can be a lot of pressure for collaborations with the industry. So be extremely careful what you sign; you might find yourself with brilliant insights that never see the light of publication. Ask senior colleagues for advice; they may have solutions and workarounds that you never thought of.
  • Statistics -- Where did they get those numbers? From their marketing department? Every year, we see new industry reports about who plays games, what they play, etc. These reports are not scientific. Their intention is to make the game industry look good. Where did they get those numbers? And how? There are no author names attached to these reports, no definitions of terms such as “gamer”, no discussion of method, no information about the data sampling. Do not use these numbers as facts. The sad problem for game studies is that we do not yet have good, independent research that systematically covers gaming demographics, and this is a crucial lack that we as a field need to address.

5. Don’t use the word ‘game’. . .

. . . without qualifications. Do you mean videogame? Say videogame. Digital game? Computer- ? Board? TRPG? LARP? Did you actually refer to all kinds of games? Sometimes, people say game when they really mean videogame. This can be very confusing, so make sure this is clear to your readers. Another problematic term is ‘gameplay’? What is that? There is no gameplay as such, only different games, played in different ways.

6. Focus on particular games, and name them

Don’t talk just about games/videogames in general. As a journal editor, I very rarely publish articles that lack a focus on particular games, or never mention a single one by name. If the article is about ‘games’ in general, then it typically is not about games at all, but instead uses ‘games’ as a metaphor for the real topic, whatever that may be.

7. Do the homework before submitting a paper

Yes, nobody has written about [x] in Skyrim, but people have written about Skyrim, and it shows excellent diligence on your part if you can show that you are aware of previous work, especially if it also shows that your approach is original. If you don’t include a literature review, how will we know you conducted one? And maybe [x] is the same as [y] by another name? For example: Interaction, agency, user functions, affordances -- are these concepts really that different? We often use different words for basically the same ideas, so if you write about agency in games without looking for similar notions described by other terms, you are not discussing your topic, only your term.

The very common trope, “There is nothing previously published on [x]” is a loaded gun- careful! Chances are there is, and you did not Scholar-Google/Bing it, but the reviewer will -- bad you! Instead, write, and be honest, “I have searched thoroughly for previous work on [x], but not found any. I did, however, find …”

8. Where to publish?

Game studies has many unconventional publication venues, and this is a challenge, especially for those of us stuck in a conventional, conservative department or institution. Open-access journals like the present one, and OA conference proceedings may not be recognized by your country, your institution, or by “prestigious” indices, but the good news is, they are recognized by your peers, who will get access to your work, and cite you.

In Europe, Google Scholar and Open Access are now the de facto standard of academic recognition. In this, my part of the world, it does not matter so much, if the venue is prestigious or not. The European Research Council will not fund projects that do not publish Open Access. We can only hope that the rest of the world will follow, and recognize the simple truth that the venue does not guarantee quality, only the content of your work does. Get it out there, and don’t hide it behind paywalls, it will only hurt your citation scores.

9. Get out of your home institution (if you can)

If you are a PhD student, then get your degree (and be thankful that they allowed you to study games) but then get out, if at all possible. Say goodbye, go somewhere else, and help build game studies there. Do not stick around out of misguided gratitude. Personally, I spent my first 18 academic years in the same building, from bachelor student to full professor, and no one thought to tell me that perhaps I should get out, while I still could. I finally realized the problem on my own, but it took a very long time, when it shouldn’t have. In some countries it is the norm to leave after one’s PhD, but where it isn’t, this lack is a problem.

Chances are, if you are reading this, you may be the only one in your institution studying games. Then it is all the more important to go somewhere to find allies and common ground. Work towards building a teaching program; that is why they pay us, not for our research (unless you are an engineer). If you don’t have students, you are missing out most of all. My students are my teachers, quite literally; somehow, they miraculously seem to have the time to play new games, and then, mercifully, they teach me about them. Let your students be your teachers, too.

10. Be inter-, be kind

As already mentioned, games and gaming are a fundamentally interdisciplinary, but also inter-cultural research area. Both research and teaching benefit from multiple perspectives and the diversity of researchers and students, in terms of discipline, but also in terms of cultural and personal backgrounds. Game studies, like any international research field, suffers from the inequalities of language, gender, ethnicity, geography, wealth and funding, national/institutional privilege, and the lack of inclusivity that such divisions entail. What can we do to be more inclusive still? Much of this vitally important work has been spearheaded from English-speaking academia, but this is precisely where it gets tricky. How do we alleviate the towering inequality created by an overwhelmingly dominant academic language -- English? Can we safely leave this to our English native-speaking colleagues? I sincerely doubt it. If you are a non-English native-speaking researcher, and find yourself marginalised because of your less-than-perfect command of English, gently remind our native-speaking friends and colleagues of their enormous but invisible privilege, because many of them have never thought about it, when perhaps they should.

Interdisciplinarity is hard, and depends on the people, not the disciplines. Working with someone from a different discipline can be more empowering than anything, but it can also be pure hell. Researchers tend to trust those who are using the same methods as they, so how do we establish trust across disciplines? The answer is, through the field of game studies. This is where trust-building happens -- at the best of times. This is why we are here.


Aarseth, Espen (2014) “Ludology,” in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies edited by Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron.

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