hc 16: Michael Nitsche – Rattling Cages

It is with a melancholic sigh that one looks back at the Neanderthal days of early Game Studies. The field seemed so wide and fresh, so unexplored. And games researchers had so much to talk about as they stepped into that undiscovered country. Aristotle and Propp were exciting, hidden universes seemed to open up behind words like ‘ludic’, ‘narrative’, or ‘ergodic.’ Opinions were crafted, arguments waged, and more fine new words were invented. It was clear: Game Studies was something different, something special, something new. But those pioneering days are gone.

If we take Buckles’ PhD (Buckles 1985) as the birthday for academic Game Studies then our field celebrated its 21st birthday last year. The short term consequence of most 21st birthday parties is a hangover – the longer one might include some more reflection. Looking around it is clear that the Game Studies landscape has filled up with dozens of books and countless research papers. Nowadays it seems that everybody takes Mario and Luigi seriously, knows about the 256th board in Pac-Man, and is an expert of the magic circle. It is almost a bit disappointing: the special freak status is gone

Games seem to be everywhere. Colleagues who used to smile about our 8bit heroes now talk about Wii dev kits for their school and the department’s presence in Second Life – or is this Virtual World Studies?. Games are not ignored by the academy anymore, but one wonders: Is Game Studies now in danger of going flat thanks to this new hip-factor?

The general expansion and change comes with some side-effects. This year the practice of peer-reviewed selection was debated; too many conferences seem to bleed out travel budgets too fast; important core events still in the process of finding their shape; no journal or magazine has taken the lead, yet; however, we have seen older publication venues struggle.

We are beyond the first wave of researchers; those who wrote about games while savouring the feeling of being at play in a whole new ballpark. Now the ballpark needs to be managed, too. Don’t get me wrong! Game Studies is still fun, it is what I want to do, and thankfully I do not have to justify it anymore as I had to ten years ago. But part of me misses that ‘edge’- the taste of the forbidden fruit.

I’m not suggesting that Game Studies – or even my own research – have ground to a halt. There is still a great deal of undiscovered terrain (theoretical, technical, creative, and social) out there for us to expand. Let tomorrow’s games be augmented, alternate, serious, emergent, art, big or casual – all things to look forward to. Games research, whether as experimental or critical force will always face new challenges in the form of fresh games, new hardware, and new players. One of my own current projects (together with Blair McIntyre and Jay Bolter here at Georgia Tech) deals with augmented reality machinima done in a MMO. We still wonder where this will lead us and what the implications might be. The project taps into the social spaces of online worlds as well as the emergent play forms of machinima and virtual performances. At the same time, it lives on the boundaries of physical and virtual play spaces. These are all very open and active research topics that only became available through technological changes that happened during this year.

But researchers have put down their claims in the foremost so open field. As a consequence any new generation will approach Game Studies differently from those first spirits. They will build on existing theories and frameworks. In a nutshell: this is a necessary and good development as long as we remember to rattle the cage that the theories built around us. Moving forward in Game Studies should involve embracing new gaming experiences and technologies. It also means cultivating what is there, questioning established perspectives, and returning to topics that are still wide open. Case in point: games and film.

“Interactive movies” is a terms that has received its share of attention, abuse, and critique. A range of work grew out of respectable institutions (especially the MIT MediaLab) that dealt with interactive cinema, cinematic camera control, and new uses of film within the interactive world. But in the world of commercial game development and most games researchers “interactive movies” were a failure. They obviously trailed far behind other forms of interactive media in terms of interactive quality. To the extent that it seemed the show was over.

The discussion about games and films is a good example for the growth of Game Studies. At times the debate has become heated (Jenkins even spotted effects and counter-effects of ‘cinema envy’ (Jenkins 2004)) yet it’s a debate that has remained active, diverse and complex from Bolter/ Grusin’s ‘remediation’ of film (Bolter and Grusin 1999), to Manovich’s ‘liquid cinema’ (Manovich 2001), to King/ Krzywinska (King and Krzywinska 2002) among others. With a range of new books coming up, the discussions seem to be far from closed.

The language of the moving image and visual “story”-telling remains a substantial element of video games – and the study of games should reflect this. Whether it is the new blockbuster, God of War (2005), the innovative art game, Ico (2001), or the cash cow, like the Madden series, we can identify an abundance of cinematic features in all of them.

The evolving relationship between games and films means that things have changed since the days of The 7th Guest (1993) or Phantasmorgia (1995). Gradually games have developed a different kind of “cinematic” quality. One that certainly has elements of classic remediation, at the same time it demonstrates new ludic forms. The camera itself has become part of gameplay. The changes are not always as revolutionary as the appearance of Lakitu in Mario 64 (1996). More often they happen in small steps over longer time periods, in sports games or survival horror series. Tracking these changes takes patience.

Moreover, newer games continue to present us with new angles on old problems. We have to regularly return to what seemed to be “cold cases” and look at them from the new-found vantage point. Series like Biohazard/ Resident Evil offer an abundance of changes and interdependencies during their multiple incarnations. We cannot only concentrate on the latest version but have to return to their predecessors, too. Old games do not go bad and our reading of them in 2007 differs from that in 1996.

That is one side of the coin – the other is that there are still revolutions in the area of games and film. These are the two reasons why I joined Diane Carr in creating the DiGRA Special Interest Group “Games and Film.” We all have our very different views on the topic but for me, re-adjusting the seemingly established views on Game Studies, or indeed, games and film, is as exciting as experimenting with new technologies. In fact, revisiting these questions we should find still large gaps in our frameworks and will probably discover quite a lot of early misunderstandings.

Michael Nitsche michael.nitsche@lcc.gatech.edu

Author Info

Michael Nitsche is an Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on virtual environments and digital moving images. Michael heads the Digital World and Image Group and is member of the Experimental Game Lab. His research interests focus on the design, use, and production of virtual spaces, Machinima, and the borderlines between games and film. He wants to thank Diane Carr for review and advice for this column.


Bolter, Jay D., and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press.

Buckles, Mary Ann. 1985. Interactive Fiction as Literature: The Storygame ‘Adventure’. PhD, University of California.

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by P. Harrington and N. Wardrup-Fruin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

King, Geoff, and Tanya Krzywinska. 2002. Screenplay. Cinema/ Videogames/ Interfaces. London: Wallflower Press.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press.

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