Wednesday, September 19, 2001

The baffling power of Academic writing
Today's first post is a kind of roundabout comment on a comment on a comment thing. I don't really disagree with what has been said so far, it just makes me ask more questions... and it actually managed to drag my mind away from NYC for a while: this is a topic which wouldn't let go of me tonight, so here goes.

Mark Bernstein comments on my comment on Justin Hall's review of Gamestudies. Bernstein reinforces Hall's point that the researchers of Gamestudies should put down their books and delve into games, particularly some special games which "the gaming community" thinks are the most important ones.

Coming from media studies, I have seen the products which shaped some of its paradigm. I have seen Eisenstein's experiments, I have seen Stagecoach, I have watched episodes of The Dynasty at the University of Bergen (yes, we had special viewings of Dynasty for students who didn't have a television). At that point (1985 -->) The Dynasty Years by Jostein Gripsrud was not yet written, and the soaps were not considered an object to be studied with anything but an ironic view, the "real" television was something else.

In literature, where several of the Gamestudies scholars come from, there are also certain works which are a must read. In Norway, the one author nobody gets past is Henrik Ibsen. He has become "bøygen", the massive block which has to be considered in all scholarship. I am certain we will at some point see "Ibsen's Dramatic Structures and Computer-Game Plots" from some overly eager Norwegian student.

All disciplines have a canon, something which is accepted as truth. Before Jostein Gripsrud's study of Dynasty, the serie was not important enough to waste time on - after, it has become a reference point in the study of media use. I am not quite old enough to know what literature studies were like before Ibsen, but I do know he was a controversial writer, he popularised and wrote of realistic situations, most likely not easy to accept for the Norwegian audience or the scholars.

The canon of the study of games has so far not been established. There is a certain tendency to play the academic political game along-side other games, but that's part of the development of any field. There might be some games which some users think are important... but my work includes interviews with active computer-game users, and none of them mention these games when I ask them about important games, interesting games, games they would recommend, or games they would have liked to make (they did mention Empire, the Sims were not such a big hit yet). Does that mean my interviewees were all wrong? Does that mean they haven't wasted enough time playing games?

To insist that there is a "right" object of study is an act which in the long run gives very little back to the field in question. Paradigms shift, yes, but why insist on creating an inflexible paradigm?

On the other hand: I might be blind to the Gamestudies Paradigm. After all I am a Scandinavian, Espen Aarseth strongly influences my work, I loosely consider Jesper Juul and Gonzalo Frasca friends, and I really care about Markku Eskelinen. But what I would like to know is how not studying an object stops a field from developing? Is this little journal that powerful? Does not looking at Deus Ex and Counterstrike make them taboo subjects for further study by other scholars?

If that is so, I understand why Justin Hall would have preferred that the journal discussed his chosen games - after all, that would have put him smack in the middle of the main-stream of game-research, and he could have had his thoughts and ideas confirmed, instead of needing to take that work on himself. That is a comfortable position to be in, as the many students who have chosen Ibsen as their topic over the years of Norwegian literature studies well know - not to talk of their professors who can spend their entire lives never looking outside of their narrow speciality.

Luckily, however, Gamestudies is a journal where more than the first articles will be posted. And knowing academic journals, if people write well about a topic they think is important, the articles will appear. You don't like the Gamestudies Paradigm (what ever it is)? Come on, change it from within!

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