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Taking Video Games Seriously
Taking Video Games Seriously: Will Academia Ever Break into Video Games like it Has in Literature and Film?


When one hears the word "videogames," rarely does a thought association with "scholarly" occur soon after. Or even a long time after. Let's be real, videogames and anything to do with academia don't immediately seem to have anything to do with one another. The idea of taking games "seriously" as works of art is simply laughable to some.

But not all.

Game criticism and theory has been steadily growing in the past ten years as more and more educated individuals have become interested in analyzing video games. Games, just like film and literature, exist within the fabric of society and can both reveal aspects of our culture while also influencing it. So it makes sense that academics would seek to understand these effects and study them closely. Academia has been making steady progress in integrating into the education side of formal study, a sure sign that academia has gained a strong foothold in the world of videogames. Take universities, for example. Twenty years ago, there weren't really any formal programs of video game studies. But according to the largest non-profit membership organization for game developers, the International Game Developers Association, today over a hundred colleges in the United States currently offer game-related programs of study. Respected places like the University of Southern California, the University of Central Florida, and Cornell University are just a few examples of well-established universities recognizing the worth of academic study of videogames.

And the integration of academia into videogames goes even further.

The International Game Developers Association has a list of 16 peer-reviewed academic journals centered around games and game theory. Their list is diverse, and includes specialized game journals such as Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. That such a large list of peer-reviewed journals even exists is a great sign that the world of videogames is moving closer to a recognized field of study. That a journal specifically exploring the intersection of gender theory and videogames is able to find enough vetted submissions and interest to publish just demonstrates this fact even more.

And it doesn't stop there. Due to its increased interest and study, terminology unique to the study and critic of videogames has emerged. With the adoption of terms like "ludonarrative dissonance" (or the disconnect players feel when their actions in a game don't fit with the story), academia has begun to systematically define very specific gaming experiences and mechanics. The creation of a vocabulary unique to videogame study has the effect of legitimizing both game study and game experiences. No longer can a gamer throw their hands up into the air in frustration as they struggle to talk about how engaged they felt playing a game; now they can learn that the state they were in is called "flow". From there, they can better understand how a game might best put a player into "flow". With this knowledge in hand, they can break down to non-gamers why a certain game may be more fun to play as opposed to another. To the non-gamer, games are made more serious when aspects of them are broken down into a science through their terminology.

Out of this, questions and intellectual debates over how to understand and define experiences and terminology in games have arisen. For example, the controversy over how to characterize "flow"––is just the relationship between difficulty and fun, or does it mean a deeper kind of engagement? But again, these arguments just strengthen the position of academia in games. As the study of games becomes more complex, academics struggle to be able to definitively point out "yes" or "no" answers to their questions, and debates arise in response. This further demonstrates how academia has established itself enough to begin to develop game theory into a fully-fledged discipline.

Communities of gamers have resisted this change though, tending to think of academia as the opposite of what fun-centric video games stand for. The average gamer may roll their eyes at academics critiquing aspects of games and say "It's just a game, man." This response is one of the most common that laymen have towards video games, not understanding how games are becoming more and more indicative of cultural norms and important to art and society. These average gamers could be unaware of what studying games can teach us about gaming and ourselves, and they may be unable to become aware. A significant barrier for academia's breaking into games is how inaccessible it can be for the layman. The average gamer probably can't take a class in game studies or afford to purchase a journal on gaming to read. While this is true for most disciplines, gaming strikes as a unique problem because of its close relationship to the easily-accessible internet and large communities of connected gamers. Some gaming journals have become open-sourced to account for this, and a movement of critique and study in blogs and sites like Metacritic have also risen in response. However, the barriers still remain––and unfortunately may inhibit potential-game developers from making use of the information academics have uncovered.

Then again, film directors don't need to understand postmodernist theory to create a movie. Sure, it may help, and your art might be better from it; but it's not necessary. Likewise, average gamers and creators of games don't need to understand game theory in order to make games. The community and creation of games has already been well-established. Academic studies just provide a framework for thinking about games and understanding their role in our ever-changing world.

This brings us back to our original question: if academia will ever create a field of study out of video games.

It looks like it already has.

*****
Elizabeth Vana (Evee) is a member of RCM's Summer Writing program. Have a question? Just want to say hi? Feel free to leave comments in the thread or email Elizabeth at elizabethnvana@gmail.com!
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