Understanding Place: Game Studies as a System of Knowing


Below is the full text of a conference proposal I submitted to the upcoming DiGRA conference . Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected, at least in part for being confusing. Fair enough. But I am posting it here is the interest of gaining additional comments and feedback, either public or private. I think the epistemological underpinnings of game studies is something I'd like to keep exploring, confusing or not!

Games can teach, but what can we learn from game studies beyond their application to games?

Much has been said about the mimetic potential of games to represent reality. The Serious Games movement models an ontological approach that sees games as a mirror creating a reflection of real world phenomenon and constructions. The presence of a game’s sense of reality to a player borrows categorically from real world phenomenon giving it a “half-reality”, to borrow Juul’s conception. Thus, a game object or action has a being tied, to some degree, to a transferable experience between the real and the virtual and allowing for a systematic criticism and exploration of these linkages.  This critical dialog may be considered the heart of what we call, “game studies”

In this view, games can speak about the world because properties of the world are embedded inside game systems and game content. Further, games allow us to generate ideas inside the virtual space of the game system and narrative open to judgement by real world criteria.

Taken together, these perspectives may best be considered games-as-model approaches, where the virtuality of the game is constantly held in strict ontological relationship to the real world.

However, a converse proposition receives less attention—the idea that knowledge about games, rather than knowledge of games provides a framework for talking about things outside of games. The body of knowledge described as game studies has a use beyond talking about games. Following the same ontological bridge that links games to the real world, we can traverse it in the opposite direction using game studies as a method for talking about specific non-game, non-virtual reality.

This paper considers the broad notion of games as epistemic systems capable of generating knowledge and understanding of the world, or at least, cultural views of worldly phenomenon. Game studies, in this mode, turns from its internally focused critical practice, here framed as an ontological practice concerned with the nature of being in a game, into a method for understanding things outside of games. The specific goal of this paper is to illustrate the potential for using games as a system of understanding through the application of the game studies concepts of “ludology versus narratology” and Caillois’ distinction between paidea and  ludus as means for understanding real world places. The first case maps the notions of a strong a ludological notion and a narratological notion to the environment of the children’s playground. This case illustrates how strengths and weaknesses in playground design can be clarified by a discussion of the inherent contestation and productive tension found in the narratology versus ludology debate (or non-debate) inside of game studies.  The second case maps the concepts of ludus and paidea to two natural places, Carlsbad Caverns National Park  and White Sands National Monument, in the United States, arguing that the management of leisure space mirrors the division proposed by Caillois and further elaborated in game studies literature. Using these cases as an initial foray into the method, this paper demonstrates the feasibility of applying game study concepts to the understanding of non-game, real world environments.

Partial Bibliography
1. Ang, S.C. Rules, gameplay, and narratives in video games. Simulation and Gaming, 37. 306-325.
2. Bogost, I. Persuasive games : the expressive power of videogames. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007.
3. Bogost, I. Unit operations : an approach to videogame criticism. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006.
4. Borries, F.v., Walz, S.P. and Böttger, M. (eds.). Space time play : computer games, architecture and urbanism: the next level. Birkhauser Verlag AG, Boston, MA, 2007.
5. Caillois, R. Man, play, and games. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2001.
6. Frasca, G. Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place Level Up Conference Proceedings, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, 2003.
7. Frasca, G. Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences Between (Video)Games and Narrative, 1999.
8. Gee, J.P. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.
9. Newman, J. Videogames. Routledge, London New York, 2004.
10. Nitsche, M. Video game spaces : image, play, and structure in 3D worlds. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.
11. Pearce, C. Theory Wars: An Argument Against Arguments in the so-called Ludology/Narratology Debate Changing Views: Worlds in Play, University of Vancouver, Vancouver, 2005.

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