hc3: Henry Lowood, Gosu Game Studies

Gosu Game Studies

by Henry Lowood

A recent Gamespot feature article explored the relationship between academic game studies and commercial game development in considerable depth. It also considered whether game designers are benefiting from critical studies. These issues are important and timely. Yet, after reading the article I became uncomfortable with measuring the success of game studies by their impact on game design.

Don’t misunderstand my concern. Game researchers must resist every temptation to hide in an ivory tower. We should never respond to the demand for academic respectability by building a wall of critical jargon and theory between scholarship and the outside world. The remarkable growth of academic game studies in just a few years testifies to risk-taking and creativity in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary niches often best understood by our friends in industry. If game studies prove useful to developers, so much the better.

My discomfort stems instead from a practical concern. By attending to the impact of our work on game development, are we possibly missing the connection of game studies to another interested and equally important group: game players?

So, how might game studies benefit from closer connections between gamers and researchers? The issue is not whether game researchers need to play more games. As a humanist (well, historian), I know that games are the texts/sources/documents of my field, and if I never play them, my research will suffer. Playing the games we write about is as fundamental for game research as reading is for literary criticism or historical research. We all know that. What I am advocating here is not more play, but more engagement with players.

The purpose of working closely with communities of players is multi-fold: learning more about the meaning players attach to play gestures and strategies, understanding what it means to watch others play, documenting in-game social dynamics and tracing the networked virtual communities that thrive around computer games, to name but a few topics. Not that they have been entirely neglected. Solid research on player communities can be found in work on all-female FPS clans and in the social communities of MUDs and massively-multiplayer games. The authors of these studies often participate in clans and player communities. Often, their most interesting insights draw upon this participation.

High-level competitive play is one topic that has not received the attention from game studies it deserves. Intense, energetic communities have formed around human vs. human competition in e-sports, cybergames, fragfests or whatever else you call these contests. Some players of first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and sports games have reached professional or semi-professional status. Many have joined national or international clans made up of affiliated players and teams; these clans attract loyal followers, websites, demo movies, and clan-specific gear. Research on these clans and fans belongs on the agenda of game studies.

What I’m after here is a simple point: the inventiveness, performances, creativity, and behavior of clans and fans is not an out-of-the-box experience. Just as a historian of basketball can get only so far by studying James Naismith’s 13 rules and their evolution into the modern game, the computer games that developers create are only part of the story that can be told about computer games. Basketball studies are unimaginable without chapters on Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan, who transformed the game as performers; on the impact of spectatorship (as in the adherence of the game clock to the demands of television) and, as recent incidents of violence between fans and players in the National Basketball Association suggest, on behavior in the stands. Likewise, we cannot understand competitive computer games without focusing more on players and spectators. If you love this sport as much as we do, you will want to and install a basketball hoop at home for which I would  recommend to check my site to get a good deal.

Allow me to make this personal for a minute. How does a middle-aged researcher with middling competitive skills get into the stands, let alone the arena, of cybergames? Part of the answer is research focused on the game genres and titles that drive competitive gaming. Some of these genres, particulary RTS and sports games, have received relatively scant attention compared to shooters, narrative genres, and massively multiplayer games. We need to better understand the elements of player skill, culture, and social interaction that are particular to competitive games. And just as it is important to play the games we write about (multiplayer as well as single-player!), it is equally important to visit tournaments of every ilk; jump into clan, fan and strategy sites; and download demo movies, shoutcasts and replays.

Having read last year that San Francisco would host the fourth annual World Cyber Games for 2004, I decided that the How They Got Game project at Stanford University would not miss this opportunity to study competitive play. After some discussion, a conference session turned out not to be the right approach. But what about participating on the floor as a referee? In the middle of a historical case study of Warcraft and its community, as well as being an enthusiastic player of this game, I applied as a referee for Warcraft 3, one of eight games whose world champion would be crowned in San Francisco. For better or worse, I was accepted as head referee for this tournament.

The experience of refereeing a major international tournament was rewarding in many ways. Working closely with the organizers (most of them Korean), players, other referees, journalists, and fans ranks at the top. My conversations and observations at the tournament immediately put several research topics on my personal agenda. Some examples: the modes and limitations of cyber-spectatorship, the differences between mainstream media and community-based game journalism, personalization of star players and in-game player identities, cheating, and the role of the referee in computer games, to name only a few. If I had not taken the WCG opportunity seriously, I doubt that these topics would seem quite as important to me. Just as important, players, journalists and fans expressed interest at every turn in academic game studies, especially work that is being done on its culture and history.

My week as a referee echoed experiences from my research on Warcraft and work on the Machinima and Game Video archives. Clans and fans cheerfully provide documentation of their activities and were enormously helpful in sorting out the intricacies of their culture and activities. Closer contacts between game studies and these player communities can only benefit future studies of performative, competitive, extroverted and transgressive play. Academic researchers do not have to become world-class players or even fanboys to become gosu in player studies; they just have to find the players.

Henry Lowood

lowood [at] STANFORD.EDU

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