Espen Aarseth

Editor-in-Chief, Game Studies.

Two Decades of Game Studies

by Espen Aarseth

This issue of Game Studies marks the 20th anniversary of the journal. Game Studies was conceived on a rainy evening fjord cruise during the third Digital Art and Culture (DAC) conference, in Bergen in August 2000, when Susana Tosca and I agreed that an academic journal dedicated to the study of computer games was needed. We then learned that Lisbeth Klastrup and Jesper Juul from the IT University of Copenhagen had similar plans, and so we banded together with them and seven other colleagues, in all five men and six women, from seven different countries and speaking seven different native languages. We spent the next half year planning the journal.

This was a time and a world quite different from today. The industrial world was still riding the relatively peaceful and prosperous “long boom” wave of the post-cold war period, with the dot com crash and 9/11 yet to happen. Disastrous climate change was not yet firmly on the global agenda, and Twitter and Facebook did not yet exist. Blogging was just starting to become a thing. And digital game culture had finally gathered enough momentum to appear interesting to academic institutions.

Starting the journal was an easy decision. No academic journals devoted to entertainment computer games existed at the time. (A much older cousin, Simulation & Gaming (1970-), focused instead on game-based applications such as training.) The Digital Art and Culture conferences, which were held for the first time in Bergen in 1998 and in Atlanta the following year, demonstrated a clearly growing, multidisciplinary body of games research. The DAC conference series became the main recruiting and strategizing venue for the birth of the journal.

Organizing the journal was more of a challenge. None of us had much experience with journals, let alone research journals. There might have been recipes or instruction manuals somewhere, but we could not find them. We knew we wanted to be online, taking inspiration from the first online humanities journal, Postmodern Culture (1990-), and we knew that the still fresh world-wide-web would be the most effective digital channel. Running a server and making web pages were relatively easy, but what about the human resources needed? Should we be independent, or go with a publishing house? (In the years that followed, many of them came calling.) In those early days of the web much was still unclear, especially the future of publishing. After soliciting some veteran advice, we decided to stay clear of the publishing industry. Going in that direction would have meant keeping up a steady volume to meet subscription demands, and we could not guarantee sufficient amounts of high-quality material, nor did we want to publish lesser-quality articles just to satisfy a commercial publication schedule. And as we have seen in recent years, at least in Europe, Open Access was the right choice.

The journal would be run by volunteering, unpaid editors, but the unmeritorious labour of server maintenance and HTML work would be paid. I became the Editor-in-Chief, not because I particularly wanted the role, or had any special qualifications or skills in that direction, but simply because I was the only one of us with a safely tenured associate professorship, and we needed that front to appear solid and serious. The others would rotate as article editors and book review editors.

We also chose to have double-blind peer review, rather than the curating editorial model still typical of the humanities. This choice was not least for political reasons: we knew that journals practicing double-blind reviews would statistically have a significantly fairer and less biased selection process than journals where reviewers had knowledge of the writers’ identity.

Game Studies had (and still has) three objectives: To publish high-quality articles, to give critical feedback to authors whether their article would end up published by the journal or not, and to make the field visible and appear established. If, two decades ago, you could tell your supervisors, “but look, here is an academic journal dedicated to games” they were much more likely to take your research proposal seriously; or, at least, they would have one lazy argument less for its dismissal. In the decades leading up to the first journals and conferences, studying computer games was a risky academic endeavour -- if it was a possibility at all. True pioneers would meet such resistance from their fields that it could put them off an academic career altogether. The most striking example of this is undoubtedly Mary Ann Buckles, whose pioneering PhD dissertation from 1985 was the first to focus on the aesthetics of a computer game. Buckles, a literary scholar at the University of California, San Diego, was given such a hard time by the literature professors on her PhD committee that, in her own words, ''I just wanted out.'' (Erard 2004). After finally receiving her degree, she quit academia and never turned back. But more than be remembered as a casualty of an oppressive university system, Mary Ann Buckles should first and foremost be celebrated for her truly innovative research, which has received far less attention than it should. When I wrote my own dissertation (later a book) in the early nineties, I found her work not only inspirational but methodologically shrewd; balancing critical assessment with perceptive ideas of what these strange new media objects not yet were but could become. Where other research efforts at the time (as well as much later) were made trying to connect adventure games to a literary aesthetics in an attempt to prove that these works were a form of literary art, Buckles’ dissertation instead approached them with a critical curiosity and an open theoretical eclecticism, applying a number of different analysis methods -- from Proppian narrative theory to qualitative interviews with players. You should read it!

For anyone starting out in humanities games research in the last decade and a half, it is impossible to imagine fully the institutional and collegial resistance of 25-40 years ago. Most of later generations now may take for granted the simple idea that games can and should be studied like any other major aesthetic genre, and as your main focus and topic of choice. We needed to free ourselves from that oppressive mindset (sometimes our own), and eventually, we did. Still, those of us who continue to get emails from lone students who can’t find support for their game research from their teachers and institutions can attest that this mindset still exists. I even got one today.

In the Nordic countries in the 90s, PhD students were much freer to choose their own dissertation topic, and therefore this part of the world has been on the forefront of developing the new field of games research, where much vaster but less agile academic empires lagged behind. When we launched the journal, in July 2001, the attention was not insignificant and sometimes hilarious. On a popular hacker forum, there was surprise and even some outrage; “Why is this hosted in Norway?” Some of the editors also got a weird, vaguely threatening email from someone ostensibly in Las Vegas, who probably thought the journal had something to do with gambling. Luckily, this global imbalance was rectified only half a decade later, when the first issue of Games and Culture was launched by an American publisher, Sage. The launch of Games and Culture in 2006, followed by many other journals over the next decade, was of course very good news; it showed that we had been on the right track, and that we were no longer alone.

Finally, and on a personal note, I would like to thank everyone who has helped conceive, shape, improve and maintain the journal over the years: co-instigators, editors, especially the managing editor, the editorial assistant, and the book editor, our funding institutions, guest editors, copy editors, web developers and -masters, strategic advisors, critics, contributors, submitters and authors -- but above all, the peer reviewers. They are the lifeblood of this journal. Every time I read a lengthy, detailed, critical, helpful review I am in awe of the largely thankless but utterly indispensable job they do. Hours spent to help people they don’t know, without compensation or even an expectation of gratitude, this is the definition of personal sacrifice (although I don’t believe they see it this way). Thank you, all!



Buckles, Mary Ann 1985. Interactive Fiction as Literature: The Storygame ‘Adventure’, PhD dissertation, University of California, San Diego.

Erard, Michael 2004. “2 Decades Later; Let Down by Academia, Game Pioneer Changed Paths.” New York Times, May 6th.

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