Who Gets to Play

How to Cite

Whalen, Z. (2004). Ludology: Who Gets to Play. M/C Journal, 7(2).
Vol. 7 No. 2 (2004): Turf
Published 2004-03-01

Over the recent holiday season, I more than once found myself in the position of explaining to a relative what it is that I do: “Oh, you study video games? But I thought you were in an English Department . . . I see.” The uncomfortably interdisciplinary field of “Game Studies” has been implicitly dealing with the same question in a quiet disciplinary turf war between scholars who attempt to bring games into existing academic discourse communities and scholars who see games as an entirely unique medium warranting independent academic infrastructures.

The study of video games in the Academy is steadily taking shape, but the question of whose “turf” video games fall under is at the root of the most divisive controversies in the fledgling discipline of game studies. Espen Aarseth, noted critic of Cybertext fame, has warned of “colonisation” attempts by pre-existing disciplines:

The greatest challenge to computer game studies will no doubt come from within the academic world. … Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonising attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. (n.pag.)

Gonzalo Frasca and others have also frequently argued that video games represent a new medium that requires an entirely new critical vocabulary, a nascent disciplinary definition, and clear academic infrastructures. The so-called ludology vs. narratology debate over the nature of games (ludologists allegedly argue that games should be understood from the standpoint of “play” and narratologists allegedly argue that games should be studied for their narrative content) seems to offer a convenient dividing line for the debate on games studies relationship to the academy. However, as Frasca has recently argued, the ludology vs. narratology debate itself is questionably construed, and, as a matter of “turf” these positions seem to lack coherence or even an identifiable membership (Frasca 1).

A useful critical tactic in approaching a difficult question is to ask, “What’s at stake?” What is at stake in the ludology debate? The answer has larger implications that I hope to address by broadening the question one step further. What is at stake in forming new disciplines?

The fragile state of higher education seems to be a common topic in the United States with state budgets showing signs of weakness and the siphoning of funds away from “non-critical” areas like the humanities. It is a broad generalisation—but often true—that major universities divide their students and, often, the layout of the campus, so that Liberal Arts students have little contact with the “hard science” of the medical schools and engineering programs. Thus, for example, Computer Science is often separated physically and culturally from Psychology, English, or Journalism. With game studies potentially engaging all four disciplines, it is admittedly difficult to imagine a useful cooperation that utilised the collective resources of each department. The alternative, a hybrid department, has its own problems, however. Georgia Tech’s nascent Ph.D. program in Digital Media and Aarseth’s Department of Humanistic Informatics often meet with skeptical responses from academic colleagues and administration.

Furthermore, the American university system is increasingly pragmatic in its stated goals and in its allotment of funds. As recent changes in my own university suggests, the continuation of support for departments and disciplines that tend toward esoteric or theoretical study depends on that department’s ability to produce a practical education product. English departments have traditionally found such a balance by assigning graduate students and junior faculty to teach the ubiquitous first-year writing courses, leaving senior faculty free to advance their own scholarship and the academic reputation of the university. Such a balance is difficult to imagine in a Game Studies program or department or even in a more broadly construed Department of New Media. Following the typical departmental model, a hypothetical Game Studies department would have to offer a required, first-year course in game production or game literacy to support the research of the senior faculty. This first-year course would also have to fit within a definition of “Liberal Arts” education such that it would be a general requirement.

Game studies seems much more plausible as a field in academics if it is attached to an existing department because universities with tight and shrinking budgets are less likely to support a field with such a short history without a pressing demand for basic instruction in the area. Thus, the question of “turf” has returned.

Video and computer games are a dominant part of our cultural knowledge, so the answer is clear in the question “What is at stake in Game Studies?” That is, the increasing distance between the academy and everyday experience, a model whose very hierarchy recalls outdated modernist or neo-classical snobbery and threatens to erode the existence of academics and higher education as we know them. Clearly, ignoring games and Game Studies is out of the question, but fitting the study of games within existing academic discourse can only be attempted from within the system.

That is why the web-based academic journal Game Studies ( is such an important development in the history of computer game studies. Surveying the list of recent contributors, one finds independent scholars, game designers, and scholars affiliated with institutes of higher education, and the majority of those representatives of the academy tend be in Communications or Cultural Studies departments. Furthermore, the form and scope of the journal mimics a humanities-oriented journal such as Postmodern Culture, and the types of articles investigate the culturally significant aspects of gaming rather than the technological architecture of games or trends in the game development industry. Thus, the de facto alignment of the journal Game Studies suggests an inclusive, liberal arts approach even if it is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Furthermore, the unifying focus on games allows scholars from a wide range of departments to bring their expertise—on, say, economics or law—to games despite Aarseth’s mistrust of such borrowing from pre-existing departments.

But there is another sense of division among those who study games that parallels the “gamer” vs. “player” designation among the gaming community of itself. In the context of game study, there is a growing sense that games “belong” to the younger generation that has grown up taking the significance of games as a granted part of our existence. The community of gamers identifies itself as more involved than the casual “players,” and the sense of pride gamers associate with social status within game communities is a significant part of their lives. Sue Morris’s research on the social aspects of online gaming bears this out. As Morris argues, “an air of tongue-in-cheek-bravado” pervades in-game taunting and many secondary gaming texts (94). This language is in some ways related to ever present “flame wars” on Internet message boards or forums where participants perceived as naive are abused for their “n00b” status. Similarly, in the context of game study, those of us in the “Nintendo generation” now attempting to carve out our spot in academics often feel a sense of ownership of games which privileges our perspective over established media scholars who may have learned about games primarily through their children. This problem suggests both that the existing study of games in the academy may be too far removed from actual game playing, and that a cultural studies or literature model might be most appropriate for understanding the most fundamental question about games, namely “Why do they mean so much to us?”

Whether the ludology approach is in fact superior to a “narratological” model ultimately matters little in the disciplinary turf war. What matters is whether ludology is sufficiently robust as a hypothetical academic discipline to offer the kind of diverse and valuable criticism that seems to be coming from a variety of existing disciplines. The answer, currently, seems to be “no,” and it may be that game studies is better off as a melting pot of diverse academic backgrounds, each contributing to the general knowledge and understanding of the problematic and compelling phenomenon of video games.

Author Biography

Zach Whalen