Friday, October 26, 2012

Game Studies: A Pointed Digression from the Lord of the Rings

I'm writing up a review for a games studies anthology on Lord of the Rings Online called Ringbearers. Like most of my game studies-related book reviews these days, I'm keeping the main text to myself, in the vain hope that I'll one day be able to publish it in a venue that's a little more likely to be noticed than my modest blogging efforts.   However, there's a short part of the review that I've decided isn't worth keeping for that purpose, simply because it could never be published anywhere else--not because it's bad writing, but because it's a bit too vitriolic and rambling to be allowed in a place with a certain objective standard. 

So clearly, it's perfect for posting to this blog. 

And while, yes, it's rambling and somewhat accusatory, I think it's still worth posting somewhere, because I think it speaks to an important part of game studies, the part that leads to dozens of studies of Grand Theft Auto while ignoring every other sandbox game, the part that defines MMOs by what you can do in War of Warcraft.  So here it is.

Elsewhere in the introduction, the editors address the issue of why a LOTRO book is necessary or even desired, given that World of Warcraft has the much larger presence and player numbers. Their answer is, in part, the aforementioned craft and transmedial roots of the game, but what I find interesting is the question itself, “What makes Lord of the Rings Online worth studying?”, because behind it lurk two more larger questions: “why makes any MMO RPG worth studying?” and, even more ominous, “what makes any game worth studying?”.

For the editors’ part, some of the answer to the second question is that the MMO in question has a sizeable number of users and a solid playing base. It’s definitely an issue that marks games as different from other media; would we approach studying literature or film primarily from the question of reader or viewer numbers? Not that we don’t do that with film or books, to some degree, nor that we shouldn’t; it’s just a markedly different approach than with game studies. And, of course, for MMOs in particular, player numbers are important as the number of players literally changes the nature of the game. Those player numbers, I imagine, are particularly important when the issue is publishing a book as much as verifying value of academic analysis; the advantage of the printed medium is that it can stand as a resource for a prolonged period, but there’s not much call for a book on a game that ceased to be playable in any form years ago. The apparent need to justify a study that isn’t on World of Warcraft is a little more troubling. Again, I imagine it’s a publishing decision as much as an academic one, to judge from the relative glut of WoW studies available; publishers have decided that WoW books sell, and thus need justification to do something else. It’s an academic and scholarly reality, and I appreciate that, much as my heart yearns to read book after book of game studies on EVE Online and A Tale in the Desert.

And the question behind it all, “what makes any game worth studying” is ominous because it calls for a confrontation of many issues at once. As scholars in a global economy, engaging in constant self-fashioning and self-promotion, we study what sells, in terms of cultural capital, academic capital, and real, actual capital. That, in a sense, can make a particular game worth studying, though it requires a rather mercenary and pessimistic view of academia to fully endorse. Coming at it from the opposite side, we study what we love, what gives us pleasure, what we find fun, and thus risk being dismissed under the label of “idealistic, na├»ve, and irrelevant”; after all, games are for children, play is not work, and just what do we mean by fun, anyway? Another answer is we study the games with messages we want to see reach a wider audience, that make a particular political statement, that “live the change we want to see in the world.” And then you run aground of naivety again. Or you could choose to study the games that are most popular, on the basis that these games are the ones that have the most influence on society in general (never mind, for the moment, who constitutes society)--which is more or less the approach that led to the proliferation of World of Warcraft anthologies. These last two approaches are particularly trouble-laden, as they edge “what makes a game worth studying” to “are games art?” with the affirmative leaning towards the political statements, and the negative leaning towards the pop culture, and both leading to dismissal. I don’t have an answer for this. I don’t know if there is an answer for it. But it’s a part of game studies, lying just below the surface, ready to burst forth, if we ever forget it’s there.

I cut myself short there a bit at the end because I was realizing that what I was writing really wouldn't do as is, but I think the point is made: the object of game studies is being shaped by a number of different pressures, many rather unfriendly to the concept of game studies.  And the account above doesn't even consider how some seem to feel that what game studies should do is not study games, but produce them, or produce systems for studying games, and leave the existing "commercial" games alone.  And the interdisciplinary pressures don't play well together; the social sciences and the humanities and the computer scientists all find a place in game studies, but aren't quite sure what those other folk are doing here.  And all of these pressures and forces can be advantages, if we're aware of how and why they're in motion.  The trick, I think, is to work with them without letting any one direction or discipline take over the conversation.   And the easiest way to do that, as individual scholars, is to either work with others, or make sure no one direction dominates in our own research.  

I've clearly moved a long way from a discussion of Lord of the Rings here.  But as long as such a digression reminds us to keep one thing from binding and ruling game studies, I think it's acceptable.
(And yes, I realize how lame a joke that is to go out on.)

Later Days.

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