Critical Evaluation of Game Studies

5 minute read

I participated at the Critical Evaluation of Game Studies conference at Tampere this week. As the name implies, the theme was very meta, with commentary about the state of the discipline.

It seemed to me that most of the presentations at the seminar one of two types: either meta-commentary on where game studies is at now, or novel approaches. I found both enlightening. All of this happened in a lecture room full of MurMurs that occasionally contributed to the discussion.

Jesper Juul started the first day by discussing how the current games could not have been thought of with the earlier theories of games that he called the “Box Model” – games that are first made and then published in boxes. Most games today don’t exactly look like that.

The day continued on a similar note, with Jaakko Suominen discussing the history of digital games, Ashley Brown and J. Tuomas Harviainen looking at how game studies have grown through how sexuality is discussed and Jaakko Stenros going through the eternal dance of game definitions.

@GamerGrrl and T. Harviainen conclude that sexuality in games should stay awkward and pubescent #cegss


Game research seminar collapses to a discussion about the definition of ‘game’ in about 1 hour 25 minutes into it ;) #cegss


Next, we had Casey O’Donnell discussing Balinese cockfights in the spirit of Geertz and Sébastien Genvo with “Toward a Constructivist Ludology” – a title that is oddly reminiscent of a game studies methodology conference 4 years ago. After 4 years of going towards constructivism, I wonder when we will finally arrive.

My #cegss takeaway from @LizardEnigma and @caseyodonnell: Move from an essentialist search to a pluralism of approaches to games/play.


Next, we got to hear from Vincent Berry and Samuel Coavoux with a rather Bourdieuan approach to looking at game studies and consumption through sociology of culture. After them, Sebastian Deterding took the discussion back to the meta level, going through the interdisciplinary status of game studies, showing how true interdisciplinarity could be achieved, or at least some paths towards that goal.

with @dingstweets ‘s talk we are slowly moving towards game studies studies studies #cegss


its true i have never seen so many sociologists in one place at a game studies event #cegss


After Deterding we dived back into humanities, with William Huber diagnosing the weaknesses of game studies as a humanities discipline. He was followed by Samuel Coavoux, Vinciane Zabban and Manuel Boutet analysing the journals Games & Culture and Game Studies for the games that were cited in their articles. Unfortunately, because of the methods used, I think the only thing they managed to show was that both journals have a pretty consistent editorial line.

Scientometric study shows game studies have concentrated on certain kinds of games. The answer: yep, because of editorial control. #cegss


Harviainen: “Game Studies and Games and Culture are journals for the desperate.” Editor-in-chief Aarseth in the room. #cegss


Espen Aarseth ended the first day with a keynote titled “A World Without Ludology”, using the narratology-ludology debate to cast even more doubt on whether ‘ludology’ can be easily identified.

Espen Aarseth’s talk “A world without Ludology” refers to Moulthrop’s “The World without Cybertext”. #cegss


The second day was started with Bart Simon discussing the concept of seriousness and how it is defined in comparison with its counterpart, unserious, and how games are placed in both categories.

food for thought from @bartsimon on the “serious” colonization/institutionalization of games. Games should remain unserious. #cegss


Bart Simon was followed by Ivan Mosca, who started with following Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” and turning it into “What is is like be a player?” but ended up on a roller-coaster ride through social ontology, rule-following and Kripkenstein.

Ivan Mosca: “computer games do not have “rules” but determinism”. What If the players are under a conventional illusion of Liberty ? #cegss


Next up was Riccardo Fassone, whose talk I liked quite a bit since it seemed to agree with my Gadamer-informed views on play and games. Surprisingly, in his paper he defended proceduralism, a surprisingly informative approach I found useful.

Riccardo Fassone against proceduralist reading of gameplay : “every video game player plays with and against authority” #cegss #gsalf


Petri Lankoski continued the formal approach by discussing formal analysis, finding and naming formal characteristics of games. There is a risk of essentialism with such approach, but Björk and Lankoski seemed to view the issue as a purely descriptive tool for design, which sounds like a very useful tool.

Listening to #cegss the question emerges: What are the strengths of game studies? What, if anything, have we done well?


Next was Toby Smethurst, followed by Diane Carr. Smethurst showed how trauma theory could be used in game studies – a suggestion many seemed to find useful and interesting. Carr presented a work-in-progress, showing how Dead Space, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions can be discussed through disability and augmentation and The Last of Us and The Walking Dead through zombies, leprosy and fatherhood.

Dear Esther enacts the ambiguity of trauma better than the canonical novels of trauma theory #cegss


Deus Ex, consent, and bio-politics… Perhaps colonisation of the life world? Critique of modernity? Diane Carr’s work fascinates #cegss


Smethurst and Carr were followed by Rory Summerley, with “What Motivates the Spectatorship of Play?” a look at spectating games. Summerley’s idea of “a moment” – a special moment of exceptional experience that makes the spectating meaningful – seemed apt, but defining and understanding what exactly the limits of a moment are was not so clear.

The last session consisted of Patrick Prax and Juho Karvinen discussing problematic playing as social problem – a very welcome perspective – Pascaline Lorentz reading players testimonials of how games saved their lives and Sara Mosberg Iversen discussing elderly players.

“Kids have a right to play, but the elderly have no such right.” #cegss


Overall, a very interesting a varied conference. Going there, I was thinking that it would be a gathering of Finnish/Nordic researchers, but was pleasantly surprised by the high international turnout.

Future directions of game studies: we need to all be meaner, less official and be meeting in bars. CEGSS 2015 as drunken bar brawl #cegss


List of forbidden words in game studies grows: immersion, interactive, game, rule, fun, interdisciplinary, ludology, narratology… #cegss


For a more expert review of the conference go and read Frans’ blog post.

“We can continue to disagree… on shared ground.” @fransmayra’s final words at #cegss