hc14: Christian McCrea ‘Still Waiting for the Sky to Fall in’

“There is a powerful impulse many games writers and researchers feel – to struggle against their field, to continually find fault with methods, to participate in epistemological debates with the idea of resolving them in their own name.”

I’m on my way to Ironforge from the night-elf outpost of Astranaar”; actually, to be honest, I’m not. I’ve played about 20 minutes of World of Warcraft and I’d rather eat powdered glass than do it again. I feel about WoW the way Herzog feels about the jungle: a sense of overwhelming and collective murder.  But it was on reading that first sentence of Tanya Krzywinska’s Hardcore column at the end of 2005 that everything came together in the picture I had of this field called Game Studies; this field is going to be okay, it’s worthwhile, its not going to disintegrate into orthodoxy. The same sensation we feel as a Zelda games draws to a close. There is something basic and true and powerful in just reading “I’m on my way” – but in the context of games research, it has that potent inflection. A journey, a happening. I’m on my way.


There is a powerful impulse many games writers and researchers feel – to struggle against their field, to continually find fault with methods, to participate in epistemological debates with the idea of resolving them in their own name. In other academic disciplines, it is merely the natural patois. The spirit of revolution inflects criticism itself. Even the pugilist and criminal pariah Mike Tyson once said “Whenever there’s a revolution, it began with someone reading a book on revolution.” To speak about speech is to offer up alternatives; so it should be taken for granted that Game Studies ripples with dissent. Yet there is a persistent fog on the moor; a constant culture of threat and competitive urge. It provokes debate and roots out more interesting pieces many people may not have otherwise seen. No doubt, part of us loves to see Game Studies in permanent crisis and revolution; the embryo is denied light and love, in danger of termination.


From the early moments of research into the digital, the tensions raised by the very notion of textuality have cut to the quick. The digital opened up questions about what a text was.  Tanya Kryzwinska said this that same column, “The analysis of the game as text means that it is approached as an aesthetic form, but not in the same way as other texts. The focus is on the relationships between text and player in terms of gameplay, design, style, reception and cultural/semantic context. To regard games as texts does not, therefore, mean simply that they are stories.” For me, that passage closed the door on games’ hysteria of origins. Very clearly and simply, we study games on their terms, and those terms are as many and varied as games themselves. The worst thing we could do is to cut and paste approaches from other research disciplines without regard to interactive form and aesthetic; without reference to the materiality of games. But this isn’t a crisis that belongs to us. That’s just writing.


It really is okay not to know what we are doing, if there’s a ‘we’ at all. Criticism is about a culture of productive, energetic work that explicates analyses and then in turn re-energises the world around us. It’s a linguistic, cultural and psychic compost heap. So why do we still debate what the essential nature of games is? Why do we still involve ourselves with the ‘core’?


Ubisoft’s Clint Hocking recently posted a quite generous exegesis on convergence, film and games. Hocking’s point was that cinema is ultimately ‘about’ low-level visual storytelling; sequential images than produce meaning. Conversely, he suggests that games are about actions that produce meaning, and therefore convergence needs to be rethought. There is something to this, but it also important to think of the ways an idea like “x is about y” rail along lines of essentialist and formalist thought. Even this column is inflected by game logic – Hardcore writers are invited to ‘focus on what they believe is core to digital games research’.


Yet good criticism and research has no ‘core’ – sometimes it dissects material experience, other times examines the situation and context of a game’s arrival. Formalism and situatedness oscillate and dovetail, creating dialectics to match games pound for pound; at least, we hope so. To generalise about games is actually really difficult; considering the vast range of acts we undertake on simple interfaces and the types of experiences we gain from them.


Cinema has an extremely varied body of research and a hundred year head-start in terms of critical writing, but it also deals with these questions of textual approach and finding a ‘core’. Cinema academics continually argue about what approach is best. Australian film writer Adrian Martin is talking about film here but it is an articulate description of criticism anywhere. Watch me replace ‘film’ with ‘game’ in this passage of his:


Likewise, I do not think we should try to collectively fix on a ‘single purpose’ for criticism. Criticism always has many purposes, and many potentialities at once; it’s not a ‘field’ you can cohere and strategically organise across the board, like a business plan, a military operation, an academic conference or a political party. What a grotesque delusion that would be, in any event!


When I speak of purposes and potentialities, I mean everything from the most humble aim – to simply give a lucid, respectful account of a game – to the most elevated and crazy: to think of game writing as a means of political intervention, or as a form of concrete poetry.


Obviously, criticism can take an infinite number of forms: it can be soliloquy, meditation, dialogue, polemical rant, patient description, a work of fiction, a text running ‘parallel’ to a game, a sociological or philosophical commentary, a cryptic piece of symbolist literature, or a political treatise. All forms should be encouraged – I defend them all! And they should be constantly intermixed into every kind of hybrid mode. It is when we narrow down to only a few modes of singular discourse that stagnation and repetition set in, and creativity withers. The challenge is always to keep your own impulse, your own excitement – or the excitement of the group you are part of – alive and productive for as long you can, and to keep switching tracks so that your idealism can be constantly reborn in new ways.


This was Tanya’s point as well, and I’ll add my name to the chorus. If there’s a manifesto worth fighting for, it’s ‘death to manifestos’. To say you cannot ‘cohere and strategically organise across the board’ is very important. To condense: There is no Game Studies. There are rather, many studies of games. There is a DiGRA and a culture and a society and arguments but all of this is pageantry, heraldry.
This picture of happy chaos is not unqualified; the pressures of reality and academic life mean that communication is to a degree, enforceable by systems and structures that require argument, testing and experimentation. A series of questions could be: How can bodies such as DiGRA help formulate a model for academic work that makes sense in the context of digital games? Could there be such a thing as recognised research blogs, and could game studies lead the entire education system in developing a model for review? Could game studies produce something like The Escapist, weekly theory publication rather than bi-annually and maintain academic standards? Are ‘standards’ even something we want; being as they are, Zach Whalen points out, the terms through which a University asserts itself onto knowledge?
With the entire academic superstructure being assaulted from all sides as technology impinges and education systems turn into initials-after-a-name factories, it’s entirely possible that game studies could be in a plumb position to not only create a knowledge economy that makes sense in the 21st century, but provide good models for the entire academic sector. There’s no reason that game studies could not develop to be the hybrid carnival apotheosis of academy in the way that games are the hybrid carnival apotheosis of culture itself. We live and breathe online; we understand the social economics of power and aesthetics, we are everything – multimodal, interdisciplinary, publicly-accessible – that the University system wants academics to become.


We have many cores and the nature of games keeps our research skipping from form, to context, to phenomena. From design, to practice, to pure theory; from worlds to worms. All this means is that we have to be eternally vigilant. As David Surman said in this column’s sixth iteration, “studying videogames is a complicated and nuanced affair … remaining objective about the text is much more taxing than in film or television studies, since it demands labour in such exacting ways.” Yet there’s already great cause for celebration, as games scholarship begins to take shape and isn’t the timid younger child of criticism we had feared.


So forget the crisis; the model of thought we are collectively making and working in now – this changing, ongoing struggle to define things is what we are, if we are anything. A moving machine of doubt that sometimes hates itself, but keeps going. We’re on our way.

Christian McCrea is an academic and writer based in Melbourne, Australia, and is a Lecturer in Games and Interactivity at Swinburne University.

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