hc4: Frans Mäyrä, The Quiet Revolution: Three Theses for the Future of Game Studies

The Quiet Revolution: Three Theses for the Future of Game Studies

Frans Mäyrä

There is an ongoing, mostly silent revolution taking place in our culture and society. The realm of imagination and creativity, or skills for problem-solving and construction are no longer restricted in the tangible physical world. Extension and investment of modern life and energy into digital puzzles and parallel universes presents modern universities with a major challenge. We must take these popular realms seriously, or face loss of both intellectual and social relevance. To meet the demands presented by these changes, there is need for a new discipline, and also more general reformation in academia.

Having discussion, even debate on the future of game studies and games research in general is of vital importance to the field. Fields of knowledge and research which do not have particular relevance to our lives are regularly passed by quietly, but games and their academic role are no such matter. They mean a lot – at a personal level, as formative and memorable experiences, and as almost omnipresent elements in late modern everyday life, as important forerunners for digitizing culture in general. This popularity has its repercussions in several fields, including study of art, work and leisure, innovation, business and economics, law and ownership, ethics, family life and education, to name just a few.

Before addressing an audience of school teachers recently, I dug up some information on the use of various media forms. Finland has been proud of the achievements of our youth and educational system; according to the recent numbers from Pisa surveys (Programme for International Student Assessment, www.pisa.oecd.org), our country is the world leader in reading and science performance, and second in mathematics and problem-solving skills. Yet, if we take a look at the Finnish statistics, the number of books read has been steadily dropping in figures from 1981 to 2002. Where might that extra time be going? Television viewing has still been growing in popularity, and was recently reported as the favourite “shared activity” by families with children. The playing of traditional games, such as card games or money games has remained either the same, or has fallen somewhat in popularity.

In our own research, playing of digital games was among the favourite activities for 10–12-year-old children in Tampere; it was hard to find even a few individuals that would not occasionally touch these games. An overwhelming majority, c. 75 %, played regularly each week. Yet, 73 % of their forty-something parents claimed to have no time or interest for digital games, even if their children openly wish to share their game-playing hobby with them. From other statistics (www.theesa.com) we have learned that the average age of game players is rising. Even so, reliable and representative global surveys are still missing and needed badly. Nevertheless it seems that there is a quiet revolution going on: the generation of non-gamers is gradually being followed by new generations with first-hand experience of digital game worlds.

Effectively what we are facing now is a paradox: a phenomenon with overwhelming popularity and societal impact is having no clear place, nor resources in our universities, neither in our educational system. What are the consequences and lessons of this for us academics? I will present here three theses as propositions for discussion:

Thesis one: There needs to be a dedicated academic discipline for the study of games.

This should be obvious, yet it needs to be stated again. Games have their own distinctive features and fundamental character or ontology, which are not shared as such by other cultural forms. They are academically overlooked, yet in their traditional forms games are almost everywhere in cultural history, all over the world. Play behaviour is older than humanity and of paramount importance for realizing any higher potential in cognitive and other skills, and for creative and social practises in general. When games are also an economic powerhouse, and among the very few genuinely interesting and profitable areas of digital interactive media, there is no excuse for leaving the current hole in our disciplinary map gaping: there is at least as much need for game studies as there is for the study of literature or cinema these days. Even if there will be several disciplines contributing to games research as a wider field, having a discipline at the heart of a recognised academic field, with an identity of its own, is the best way of serving all those young students and researchers who are just waiting for an opportunity to specialise in games, to contribute to the deep, critical knowledge about them, and to push forward the logjam where the cultural status of games currently is located.

Thesis two: This new discipline needs to have an active dialogue with, and be building on of existing ones, as well as having its own core identity.

Games are structures for playful interaction; they come to life when someone leaps into the magic circle, makes a choice between alternatives, succeeds or fails in a test of skill coordination, utilizes dexterity or mental prowess, or otherwise manipulates the options opened up by the play space. At the core of game studies there need to be concepts and theoretical models that properly address these fundamentals. There is need for a dedicated history of games; indeed, several of them are needed, as forms or genres of games are often clearly distinct and have roots of their own. Yet, games do not exist or develop in a vacuum. There are many ways in which games overlap with other areas, such as various forms of storytelling, audio-visual media and arts, science and the art of programming, or various fields in business and marketing. There is therefore no need to reinvent the wheel if one’s interest is, for example, in the way people communicate in online game worlds, how they relate to each other and what are the related common human motivations or psychological foundations. There is already some existing research to learn and profit from. Game studies needs to develop as an extension and reformation of existing scholarly and scientific communities and practices. Only by efficiently utilizing all the forms and channels for academic writing, publication and critical review will we help make game studies into a new and exciting part of the academic world.

Thesis three: Both the educational and research practises applied in game studies need to remain true to the core playful or ludic qualities of its subject matter.

There is a generation of young academics emerging who have grown up surrounded by digital games, and whose attitudes to life have been formed by simultaneous changes in culture and society. They are part of the post-scarcity experience, where the utilitarian morals of the 20th century generations are giving way to new priorities in life. Game studies is a discipline that is going to play a part in this change, directing attention also into the ways in which we organise our own work. Only by coordinating the research work and coursework in ways that will keep the qualitative core of games and playing visible to researchers, informants and students alike, will the discipline be the innovative, yet passionately and uncompromisingly pursued field it has every opportunity of becoming. There is room for play too in how the challenging and yet fun core elements of games can be taught and researched, providing also endless new challenges for academics in years to come. Looking back, we need to be able to say that we have done our share in making this world – indeed, all the worlds where we live, play, and study – better places.

Author note

Frans Mäyrä, PhD, is the Research Director of the Hypermedia Laboratory in the University of Tampere, Finland. His research interests include cultural analysis of games, media and information technology. He has contributed over 60 scientific publications, supervises several research projects and holds positions in various scientific organisations, including DiGRA, Digital Games Research Association where he is the founding president.

frans.mayra [at] uta.fi

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