After having to repeat what has been said by other (greater) minds, it feels good to finally write what I think. I'm sure my opinions have found their way out in my prose style and focus during these last few months, but I digress. Here is my general process and thoughts on the matter:
I began by reading Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism by Ian Bogost. I'm of a more scholarly bent (read: a masochist) so I loved the theory he was getting into. He was perhaps a bit overzealous with his scholarly references (Lacan and Levi-Strauss? In a book on game studies?), but that comes from working in a field that often raises eyebrows. Nevertheless, I found his theory of unit operations to be a very interesting way of looking at all art forms. It is so simple and intuitive, after he gets to a few examples -- perhaps too much so (it basically says multiple parts of a medium work together to create meaning.) The best ideas always are. It was a good starting place, especially for a comparative literature student. It introduced me to the ludology vs. narratology debate and other issues in game studies, and his premise would stick with me as I researched further.
Next, I picked up the much more practically oriented A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster. It was nice to have a designer's perspective after reading a scholar's take on things (well, primarily scholar; Bogost has done design work). The book is deceptively deep -- it was very easy to follow with whimsical pictures illustrating each point, but Koster had a lot to say about fun, ludology, and the profession of game design in general. I found I could not agree with his premise that games are "puzzles to solve" and ought to be "fun" -- it seems so limiting. Still, he makes the position very tempting, and deals with the question of games as art. This is probably an even better place to start than Bogost, especially for someone who is more interested in the art of game design.
The pendulum swung back towards the technical with Jesper Juul's Half Real. Anyone looking for a primer on the relationship between game mechanics and the worlds they inhabit should look no further. Juul gave me a lot to think about, especially after Koster -- he fleshes out the ludology vs. narratology debate even further, and is very concerned with the theoretical issues surrounding game fictions. Especially interesting were the ideas of coherence, emergence, and progression, something I found myself applying to any and all games I'd played. Juul is primarily a ludologist, but this text is free from insidious bias, as far as I could tell. It's heavy on theory, but not in the same way as Bogost is. Juul draws primarily from theorists attached to game studies in some way, so the theories are very accessible and useful for anyone looking into the field.
I decided to take on The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses next, a game design handbook by Jesse Schell. The book is primarily meant to be used as a reference for would-be game designers, but I found I couldn't put it down. Schell seemed generally unconcerned with many of the definitional squabbles of the other theorists, providing his definitions with a verbal shrug and a nod towards practicality. Like Koster, Schell's writing style is colloquial and inviting; also like Koster, he has a lot to say, and draws heavily from his personal experience working with Disney. Whether you are a game designer or theorist, Schell's book is a must, especially for its dissemination of the Elemental Tetrad, indirect control, story structures, and the whole idea of creating an end-user experience. Unless you're heading into the field right away, the business aspects in the last few chapters are probably skipable. In either case, it's a long haul to get through and a wealth of information, but you'll leave inspired to be a game designer.
The last book was completely out of left field: Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium by Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister. It takes a much broader approach to the medium than the previous books, examining not just designers and players of games, but marketers, scholars, pundits, and society as a whole. It may be short, but it is packed with information and written in a witty and verbose style that is chock full of impressive turns of phrase ("hibernaculum of ludic memories" is by far my favorite, 34). The seven aspects of computer games are intentionally provocative ("aimlessness" is one), and generally hard to disagree with by the time they are done with each chapter. Some aspects of it are a bit out there, especially the authors' constant appeal to "magic" and "alchemy" or their use of Marxist texts to describe games as work, but it is generally a very good overview of the major thoughts about the field (and is the most modern). By the end, I had a completely new view of the game medium and industry; I now see it as fluid, multidisciplinary, and insanely complicated. That's probably the most accurate vision anyway.
A short note: throughout the project, I was paying attention to the web series Extra Credits, an excellently produced and well-researched web series from game designers and researchers who have their own opinions on all of these issues. I reference them throughout the Wiki, so thought I'd put them down here. The show is an excellent resource for any would-be game studies scholar (and entertaining to boot!)
These, of course, are just my opinions. I say you make your own. Go back to the Main Page, or check out 6 Things You Should Know About Game Studies. If you need a formal list of my sources, check out the section below.
Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge: MIT, 2006. Print.
Juul, Jesper. Half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds.
- Cambridge MA: MIT, 2005.Print.
Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph, 2005. Print.
Portnow, James, Daniel Floyd, and Allison Theus. Extra Credits. Penny Arcade TV, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
Ruggill, Judd Ethan., and Ken S. McAllister. Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game
Medium. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2011. Print.
Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2008. Print.