Common Problems in Writing About Games

After reading game studies for years, there are a few issues that I regularly encounter and that I find problematic. I thought about writing a more thorough paper about these issues, but that would take more time than I currently have. The issues I mention below are also pretty diverse, so maybe the only thing they have in common is that they’re issues that I regularly see in game studies papers.

I won’t do any naming and shaming here, but all examples listed below are based on published research in game studies. Some of the same problems also show up in games journalism. Here’s five that bother me:

  1. “Games” is a diverse set of things, many of them non-digital. Writing about all games in general is only useful in very few cases, and most arguments would be improved by being more explicit about what types of games are being discussed and what the limits of the argument are.

  2. In most examples there is no easy way to separate representation from simulation (or “core” from “shell”) in games. If this is done, it must be a conscious methodological choice, not an implicit normative stance. It’s a completely valid choice to focus on procedural aspects of games, but so is focusing on narrative or other representational aspects. Game studies is a multidisciplinary field for a reason and no discipline has privileged access to games.

  3. Computers are not magical black boxes whose operation can’t be understood, but are governed by well-established principles. Especially people writing about the representational aspects of games tend to regard the computational aspects of games as a given that are governed by unknown or magical rules.

  4. There is not just one way to play games. People writing about games tend to take as given that being heavily engaged with a game is the only or best way to play a game. This form of engagement is often discussed in terms of “immersion,” which is itself a vague term that covers many different types of engagement. Heavy engagement with games is often valorised and seen as normatively better than other ways of playing, which marginalises other forms of engaging with games. Probably the most common way to engage with games is to spend a few minutes tapping on a screen while waiting for something.

  5. “Gamer” is a specific subcultural position, not anybody who plays games. Being a gamer is related to identifying with specific parts of gamer culture, which tend to be related to playing specific genres of games, like FPS games. People who play casual or mobile games are less likely to identify as gamers, but that doesn’t mean that they are not players. In most cases, it’s more accurate to write about players, not gamers.

There are probably other common problems in game studies that I have missed, some of them probably things I do. Anything you think I should add to the list?