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Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium

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Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McCallister; University of Alabama press, 2011. 106 pages

Written by Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister in 2011, Gaming Matters is an attempt to define computer games as a medium or, as the authors see it, "an exploration of the occultic, legerdemainic, and ludic magic of the computer game medium" (6). The book attempts to link the views of game designers, consumers, marketers, and scholars while sifting through the range of discourse surrounding the transdisciplinary medium. Ruggill and McAllister describe their approach as deliberately "playful, invocative, and interdisciplinary," in order to match the characteristics of the medium they are attempting to describe (6).

Each chapter of the book centers around one of the seven attributes they claim characterize the medium as a whole: idiosyncrasy (uniqueness and difficulty to fit into a traditional mold), irreconcilability (complexity and contradictory aspects), aimlessness (games need hooks to keep players interested), anachronism (focused on future methods and past tropes), duplicity (they foster fictions and deception), work (how the line between labor and play is blurred), and alchemical properties (multiple technical elements working together to create immaterial experiences.)

The authors draw from multiple perspectives and fields of study in their examination of the medium, including corporate practice, game design, communications studies, and consumer practices, resulting in a throuroughly researched examination of the medium. The book includes an extensive gameography and bibliography in the appendices.

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Chapter 1: IdiosyncrasyEdit

The first chapter serves as an introduction to the work, in which the authors spend time discussing the medium's inherent plasticity and transdisciplinality. They begin by highlighting the "whimsical" nature of the book to follow -- the best way to go about discussing a medium that is so inherently idiosyncratic and based on play. As the authors put it, "games can look, sound, and play in ways limited only by taste, imagination, and technology," and "play is the language of computer games" (2).

They follow this with a brief overview of scholarly perspectives on the game medium, and states that, although there are understandings of games as concrete objects and theories of games in their "grandest, most abstract sense," there is little that works to connect these perspectives (4). In their view, the way computer games' concrete rules and technologies can create immaterial and dynamic experiences is a sort of "magic," and is essential to understanding the idiosyncratic computer game medium (5). 

Ruggill and McAllister then go on to cite the seven features of games they will explore in the forthcoming pages, followed by brief synopses of each chapter. The chapter ends with a brief explanation of the importance of game studies: our current society's "increasingly intimate relationship between human beings and their computers" is both supported and denoted by the popularity of computer gaming (14). The goal of the book is to explore the medium itself and how it changes this relationship; they leave more comparative studies to other theorists.

Chapter 2: IrreconcilabilityEdit

By irreconcilability, Ruggill and McAllister mean the "discursive divisiveness" of the computer game medium, both in relation to its own breadth and diversity (casual puzzle games to massively multiplayer online games to hardcore pornography) and in relation to other media (games do not quite match up with the features of films, books, achitecture, or any other form). 

The authors begin the section on the medium's self-irreconcilability, with a critique of media theorist Mark J.P. Wolf's four characteristics of the medium (space, time, narrative, and genre). Wolf says the goal of his system is to categorize games, and yet he provides multiple categories for any given game, effectively "undermining his well-honed schema" (19). For the authors, this just serves to accentuate the computer game medium's impossibly diverse nature; because of the differences in art style, play mechanics, and hardware, computer games are almost impossible to fit into a box or framework. This is made more unclear by the lack of a stable vocabulary among game designers, players, and scholars -- Wolf uses the term "videogame" to encompass the medium, for example, while the authors here prefer "computer games" (23). Wherever people associated with the game industry turn, they run into the "cactus of irreconciliability" (25).

The next section of the chapter is about computer games' relationships to other media. In one sense, the authors argue, computer games and other media (especially films) are intimately connected because of the "cross-pollination" of the mediums; game adaptations of films have become enormously popular, and other media have taken to using game tropes to acheive their purposes (advertising, for example) (26). At the same time, however, computer games cannot be seen as "interactive movies" or any other media because they are "in some ways ineluctably unique" (27). These two truths seem to form a paradox of irreconcilability which surrounds games.

This has led many to question whether games may be considered a medium at all, a view which Ruggill and McAllister entertain but ultimately reject (28-29). In the end, they compare the medium to Michel Foucault's concept of discourse; without origin or category, but never without meaning (31). 

Chapter 3: AimlessnessEdit

Having explained the computer game medium's irreconcilability, the authors go on to explain a counterintuitive truth: the medium is inherently boring. According to Ruggill and McAllister, games require that the player repeat various tasks in order to create meaning, a "considerable amount of drudgery" for the player to wade through (34). As such, the medium is "fundamentally aimless, and an enormous amount of craft, talent, and luck is required to produce a game that deflects the boredom produced by this aimlessness" (35). As a result, computer games must insist that they are worth playing, that the player ought to put their own reality on hold and take on a specificed persona, if only for a short time.

The process of a game's cultivation of interest can be easily seen by the "insistent invocations" within computer game design, advertising, and lobbying, In any of these three cases, the gamer (audience) is given identity through interpellation (a concept borrowed from Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser), the tendency of the computer game medium to reach out and target people through implicating them in the gaming complex (36). From a design aspect, games have methods of insistence including: reminders and tips ("Remember this", 41); giving orders to the player ("If you do not obey, the game will be over", 41); keeping players immersed in their role (as hero, villian, etc, 41-42); assessing the player ("Good job!", 42); and interactivity ("call and response", 43).

Advertising of games also plays a significant role in the process of insistence, especially by using statements that reach out and implicate the player with language (44). Further, the authors also look into the lobbying process from the corporate and scholarly sides of the computer game mediums, especially how businessmen determine a game's viability and how scholars insist upon the artistic value of games (46). In general, Ruggill and McAllister hold that all these methods hide any failings games have from their inherent aimlessness (49).

Chapter 4: AnachronismEdit

In the fourth chapter, Ruggill and McAllister examine the computer game medium's unique relationship to time. Computer games are by definition anachronistic, according to the authors, as "they are at once futuristic in the techniques and technologies used to design and build them; primordial in the play they evoke and depend on" (51). In the process of production, computer game designers and production companies are always looking forward to the next big piece of technology that will catch on in an attempt to make profits, and yet they rehash many of the same aspects of play that have been a part of games for centuries (finding, collecting, dexterity, etc). This disparity creates a "ballooning of the present," obscuring the position of the future and the past in favor of a constant "now" (55-56). Contributing to this "ballooning of the present" is the computer game medium's tendency to be recursive, forcing the player to repeat certain tasks or levels in order to prolong the experience of play through replay value (56-57). This further elongates the sense of "now" games create.

Aside from the elements from the production cycle, computer games as artifacts are also anachronistic. The medium seems to recycle the same tropes of play and genre, are run in the same format or with similar mechanics, and are attached to specific hardware that constantly becomes obselete over time before being rereleased on new platforms. In this way, games are always pretending to be on the "cutting edge," a technique that is fundamental to the computer game medium.

Chapter 5: DuplicityEdit

The next trait of the computer game medium that Ruggill and McAllister examine is its duplicity. They begin with the provocative claim that "computer game scholars routinely lie about what it is they do" -- that is, that playing games is merely research (63). From here, they go on to say that dupilcity exists in multiple aspects of the medium and can be seen from multiple standpoints (the player, the marketer, the designer, the scholar). The rest of the chapter is devoted to examining duplicity in five primary valences: technical design, industrial and interface design, game design, industry practices, and scholarship (64).

From a technical design standpoint, computer games are duplicitous in that game designers pretend to know what makes games entertaining and impactful, but they do not fully understand how it works. This situation is referred to by the authors as "the sorcerer's self-delusion," a topic they return to in the book's final chapter (66). Game design is also duplicitous in that it creates unreal scenarios in which "realistic experiences can be had" (67). Besides from the duplicity that comes from any fiction, these unreal scenarios immerse players and "enchain their belief" in the game world, veiling the medium's aimlessness (explained in an earlier chapter) as well as the industry's profit motives.

In the section on industrial and interface design, Ruggill and McAllister explain how game hardware and software simplifies "the technical complexity required to generate gameplay" through intentional design choices (69). This makes games seem much more approachable than other equally complex technologies, again obscuring their true nature. This is accomplished through simplistic hardware and controller design, demos, and an interface's "attract mode" -- the screen that shows sample gameplay that is usually pre-rendered and thus much higher quality than the actual gameplay (70). 

The third duplicitous aspect of the medium is game design itself. The authors focus particularly on aspects constructed by the game designer, like sound effects (which make inconsequential actions seem more impactful) and controller vibrations (to emulate the kick of a machine gun, for example), but any technique used to hide the computer game's inherent aimlessness as explained in chapter three is just as duplicitous (75, 76). A major side effect of this duplicity is that it makes computer games much more surprising, which increases a game's draw and value (76).

Next, the authors briefly describe the dupilicity of the game industry (many of the advertising and corporate practices associated with any industry, plus those mentioned in previous chapters) and the field of game scholarship (the introduction of the chapter). They end the chapter with a disclaimer that "dealing with duplicity 'comes with the job,'" and is not necessarily a negative aspect of the medium (80).  

Chapter 6: WorkEdit

The sixth chapter of the book takes as its subject the computer game medium's tenuous relationship to work and play. "While play defines the computer game experience," Ruggill and McAllister write, "work defines the computer game medium" (83). This premise refers to the production cycle, the work done by the player, and a wider cultural work/labor economy that arises from games. The chapter then goes on to describe the question of games as art and the role of the critic in the field of games.

The first part of the chapter deals with the enormous amount of work that goes into the production of a game. Though thousands of employees work on the biggest titles, relatively few of them are given credit for their work. They become like the "machinery of astage magician's set," deliberately made unknown to the audience in order to hide games' constructedness (85). After the game "goes golden" (i.e. after the first reproducible working copy is made), even more workers are excluded -- pilots, dockworkers, and all other workers that handle a game are invisible helpers in the construction of computer games (86). This creates a "mythic cultural cachet of developer as 'artiste,'" a misrepresentation of the work behind computer games (86).

Having examined work in the terms of the production cycle, the authors look at the act of playing games and its relation to work. Since "players reproduce or consent to ideologies embedded within games themselves" (such as defeating weak enemies in order to become more powerful in a process known as "grinding"), significant parts of games for many players become work (87). What's more, it takes work to understand how to play any game, and some players thrive on that work, especially those who are interested in complex systems associated with flight simulators or other complicated computer games (88). The learning curve is a huge part of games, in this respect, but also has as much to do with work as it does play.

The authors follow this by bringing in Karl Marx's theories on work (something which is voluntary and may be 'free play') versus labor (taxing work applied to bring about material or commercial gain) in order to put the discussion in a larger cultural context (91). The work done by players of computer games is in some sense work being done on gamers: the work of cultural formation. As cultural objects, games exert ideological power over players, even if the activities in a game are worlds apart from the real-world activities they often seek to emulate (93).

The last section of the chapter examines computer games as works of art. The authors hold on one hand that games are immaterial bits of code, they "void art's necessary provenance" that requires an authentic, material original (94). At the same time, because of this very immateriality, every copy of a game is just as "original" and "authentic" as every other copy, and "therefore in some sense is also always [a work] of art" (95). They finish the chapter with a look at the work of criticism, and how it might expand the medium's legitimacy as art (96).

Chapter 7: AlchemyEdit

The final chapter of the book serves as a conclusion which links together all the previous aspects of games under the extended metaphor of alchemy. Like alchemy, the idiosyncratic nature of games is "well suited for connecting human beings and the ways they change and evolve with the technologies that change and evolve with them" (98); what was the search for precious metals is now an exploration of the gems of technology. The irreconcilability of the computer game medium also has a parallel in alchemy, a field which was approached in a variety of different ways for myriad reasons. Both are less about trying to categorize the uncategorizable and more about accepting a more intuitive understanding of the intricacies of the practice (99).

Drawing a connection to chapter 3, the authors say that though the medium is aimless, that very feature allows it to "yield readily to the hands, minds, and instruments of those who would engineer it" in a way akin to ancient alchemy (99). This leads into the anachronistic nature of both fields, both of which seek to prolong the present moment through replay value (for games) and "the elixir of life" (for alchemy) (100). The dupilicitous nature of both alchemy and computer games have both aided in their significance and undermined their legitimacy in key ways (101). Finally, both games and alchemy require a huge amount of work centered around creating something new from within "the liminal space between art and science" (102). 

In conclusion, Ruggill and McAllister state that the computer game medium is like alchemy in that it is procedural, seeks out perfection, and is about renewal of old materials (play) into newer, more valuable objects (103). Like the alchemists of old, game designers and producers seek to "create new life" through the game and in the player, an intense endeavor that only ever leads to "discovery," no matter which of the unclear and twisting path the medium takes (105-106).

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