hc17: Jose Zagal. Who Will Continue to Blaze the Trail?

Game Studies: Who Will Continue to Blaze the Trail?

Games Studies is a recently established field. Regardless of whether or not we agree that 2001 was the “year one” of this emerging, viable and international field (Aarseth, 2001), the truth is that videogames have not been around much longer. Games, of course, pre-date videogames and have been studied for over a hundred years in the context of other fields including anthropology and the social sciences (Juul, 2001). However, as far as videogames are concerned, there have not been more than ten years of systematic, concerted, and collective study, research, and publication.

It is safe to say that it has taken perhaps ten years or so for a group of people, from a variety of academic backgrounds, institutions, and industries, to collectively negotiate meaning about games in pursuit of a greater understanding of this medium, its potential and its uses. What defines and brings together the members of the field of Game Studies is a common interest in games, together with a shared history of learning. Together, we have been learning what games are, what they can be, and how to articulate that sense-making so as to adequately communicate it.

There is still much work left to do. Our efforts so far have focused on establishing the external credibility and relevance of Game Studies: games are interesting and worthy of study. Part of this process of establishing ourselves has also required that negotiate a common language for expressing what we’ve learned as well as begin to define and decide on the methods and practices we believe are most adequate for our research. There are research questions left unanswered and unexplored, debates yet to be had, and we will also have to revisit and renegotiate a lot of the knowledge we have already built.

Now is the time to step back and address the challenges and issues we will face going forward. Where do we want this research community to go, and more importantly, who is the next generation of game scholars that is going to help us get there? As Michael Nitsche puts it, “they will build on [our] existing theories and frameworks” while hopefully “rattling the cage” these theories build around us (Nitsche, 2007). In this article I propose two questions that should be used to guide the discussions we should have as a community regarding the new generation of games studies scholars.

  1. How do newcomers learn what Game Studies is?
  2. What should newcomers to Game Studies know about games?

Learning is Becoming by Participating

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger are educational theorists whose work explores has looked at the role learning plays within organizations and communities. In particular, they have explored how it is that newcomers or novices learn the skills and knowledge necessary to become central members of the communities they join.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s concept of Communities of Practice (CoP) as a means for explaining and understanding communities has become widely influential as a social theory and a learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The term community of practice comes from the idea that there are groups of people who share similar goals and interests and that in order to pursue these goals, they employ common practices and tools, and communicate and express in a common language. Through these common practices and activities, these groups of people come to hold similar beliefs and value systems. Game Studies is a community of practice.

Lave and Wenger also describe the process by which interested outsiders become members of a community. They describe this process as learning. In the context of a community of practice, learning is the process through which someone absorbs and is absorbed by a culture of practice. It is a process of enculturation wherein your identity is shaped and formed. As a lens, communities of practice theory also proposes legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) as a mechanism to describe how this happens (Lave & Wenger, 1991). According to LPP, newcomers become members of a community initially by participating in peripheral, yet productive and necessary tasks that contribute to the goals of the community. By performing these peripheral activities, novices can observe and become acquainted with the practices, tools, and language of the community. Gradually, as these newcomers become members of a community, they begin to participate in the activities that are more central or defining of the community. When novices can directly observe the practices of experts, they can understand the broader context in which their own efforts fit. Extended periods of legitimate peripherality provide novices with opportunities to make the culture of practice theirs.

What role do novices currently play in Game Studies? Are they provided opportunities for doing things that are valuable to the community? How do they relate to other members of the community?

Other fields have established mechanisms to allow newcomers to participate legitimately. For example, it is common practice in the HCI (human-computer interaction) community for students to participate in the review process of conference articles, including those of CHI, its largest conference. In the CHI paper review process, articles are anonymously examined by students as well as professors and professional researchers. The review process also includes the discussion of the article once all the reviews are turned in. By participating in the review process, students are allowed direct access to the process and practices used by current members of the discipline to establish what should and should not be a part of its body of knowledge.

In the Learning Sciences community, it is common for academic conferences to feature a doctoral consortium. The doctoral consortium provides an opportunity for Ph.D. students to share their current dissertation work-in-progress with their peers and a panel of faculty selected from across the field. The consortium usually takes place before the conference and is an all-day event. Some of the objectives of the consortium include providing a setting for mutual feedback on participants’ current research, guidance on future research directions, and foster a spirit of collaborative research across institutions (ICLS, 2006). The consortium allows participating students to interact with peers at a similar stage of their education as well as meet, and get feedback from, expert members of the community who will become their future mentors and colleagues. Janet Kolodner, co-chair of the doctoral consortium at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences in 2006, describes it as a community building event whose attendees are selected based on a combination of how much they will benefit together with how much benefit they will bring to the field (Kolodner, 2007).

The above examples show how other fields allow for its novice members to legitimately engage in the practices and discourse of those communities. They are not the only means for achieving this and we should consider these and other forms of legitimate peripheral participation beyond those that currently exist.

Gamers, Non-Gamers and Game Studies

What should newcomers to Game Studies know about games? Is learning game studies “easier” because games are the subject matter? Where education is concerned, games can be motivating when it comes to learning (Malone, 1981). However, it is dangerous to assume that learning will be easy, fun, or happen felicitously simply because the subject matter is games. Research has shown that when using commercial games for educational purposes, the motivating and entertaining aspects of games only go so far (Squire, 2005). The same applies to learning about games and learning about Game Studies.

A research study conducted in 2006 explored the challenges and issues faced by games class instructors and students taking games-related classes. This study found that, due to the challenges of the medium, many game class curricula assume, or implicitly require, that students be already intimately familiar with the games they will study (Zagal & Bruckman, 2007). Professors and instructors simply cannot cover all the required class material if they have to also allow for time to play all the games in order to get the students “up to speed”. Also, the issues surrounding legal access to games released on obsolete hardware platforms further complicate the issue. When assigned to play multiple games as homework most students opt to not play them at all, or just try them for a few minutes. The students who have already played the games assigned consider themselves lucky. The end result is often that the students with extensive prior experience participate actively, while those that don’t feel alienated and marginalized. Non-gamer students don’t share in the same experiences and cannot relate to what’s being taught and discussed in class. They also feel that they are inadequately prepared to be successful in this course of study. The message is that if you haven’t played a lot of games by the time you’re in a games class, it’s too late.

I agree that game scholars should themselves play games (Aarseth, 2004), however implicitly requiring high degrees of experience with videogames could have unintended effects on the diversity of people who could become future members of the field. Requiring incoming students and potential scholars to have years of experience with a broad range of games and game genres marginalizes those that don’t. We face the danger of confusing the culture of videogame fandom with the culture of Game Studies. Game Studies scholars should not have to start out as gamers.


I have posed two questions whose goal is to force us to examine some of the current practices in our field, in particular with how they relate to potential new members of our field. How do newcomers learn what Game Studies is, and what should newcomers to Game Studies know about games? Due to the youthfulness of our field, our members currently come from a diversity of backgrounds and our paths into game studies were haphazard and indirect. This is starting to change. Thus, the importance of reflecting on the questions I outlined. After all, the future of Game Studies lies not so much in what we do now as it does in what those who will become members of this field will do.


Aarseth, E. (2001). Computer Game Studies, Year One. Game Studies, 1(1).

Aarseth, E. (2004). Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis. In W. Bo Kampmann (Ed.), Game Approaches / Spil-veje. Papers from spilforskning.dk Conference August 28-29, 2003: Spilforskning.dk.

ICLS. (2006). Doctoral Consortium. Retrieved July 8, 2007, from http://www.isls.org/icls2006/consortium_doc.html

Juul, J. (2001). The repeatedly lost art of studying games. Game Studies, 1(1).

Kolodner, J. L. (2007). Personal Communication – July 26, 2007. In J. Zagal (Ed.). Atlanta, GA.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369.

Nitsche, M. (2007). Rattling Cages. Retrieved Aug 20, 2007, 2007, from http://digra-old-site.local/hardcore/hc16

Squire, K. D. (2005). Changing the game: What happens when videogames enter the classroom? Innovate, 6(1).

Zagal, J., & Bruckman, A. (2007). From Gamers to Scholars: Challenges of Teaching Game Studies. Paper forthcoming at the Digital Games Research Association International Conference (DiGRA) 2007, Tokyo, Japan.

Author Info

Jose Zagal is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has an M.Sc. in engineering sciences and a B.S. in industrial engineering from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. His research interests include the use of online communities for collaborative learning and the development of frameworks for describing, analyzing, and understanding games. He is a member of the Electronic Learning Communities Lab and the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology.

His website is located at http://www.gatech.edu/~jp and he can be contacted at: jp[at]cc.gatech.edu

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