While video game scholars have always been quite self-aware when it comes to reflecting their relation to other disciplines and the respective theories and methods, most recently game studies seems to be on a full-fledged journey of self-discovery with many conferences dealing with the current state of the field, its relation to other disciplines and its possible future. Recent stages of this journey have been the workshop Cutting Edges and Dead Ends (Lüneburg, February 2014), the Critical Evaluation of Game Studies seminar (Tampere, April 2014) and the DiGRA 2015 conference with panels such as “From Game Studies to Studies of Play in Society” (Lüneburg, May 2015). On May 28, I had the opportunity to attend another event that picked up on the same issue: the Grounding Game Studies symposium at the University of Copenhagen.
Hosted by Andreas Gregersen, the 1-day event assembled a choice selection of scholars like Kristine Jørgensen and Rune Klevjer (Bergen), Rikke Toft Nørgård (Århus), Espen Aarseth and Hans-Joachim Backe (Copenhagen), and Bernard Perron (Montreal) to reflect more explicitly on the grounding of game studies in general and their own studies of games. And while all six presentations shared the main premise that today’s game studies lacks terminological clarity, thorough research programs, and formalized ontologies, they still differed in how they proposed to address these issues.
Kristine Jørgensen was the first to identify the main challenges of being unestablished as a discipline such as pressure from more established fields, pressure from research programs and project leaders, pressure from the game industry, or pressure from the public. Still, she argued in favor of multi-disciplinary approaches in game studies and the establishment of research centers, groups, departments, and educational programs. Next was my own presentation, which focused on how to engage in dialogue with other disciplines by borrowing the metaphor of a ‘Columbian exchange’ from Dominic Arsenault: with reference to cognitive game studies I sketched out how a bidirectional sharing of concepts between game studies and film studies (as well as game studies and game design) might inform (and improve) research in both fields. I concluded that by engaging in this kind of dialogue between disciplines and at the same time sharpening our tools as games researchers, game studies might stand its ground as a discursive field rather than a distinct discipline.
Discourse communities was also the topic of Bernard Perron’s presentation. Taking the identification of video game genres as his point of departure, Bernard advocated an open-mindedness in scholarly reasoning that also reflects on how fans and players, industry workers and marketers, as well as critics and journalists talk and write about games. Similarly, Rikke Toft Nørgård highlighted the importance of more holistic, transdisciplinary and appreciative approaches within game studies. According to Rikke, game scholars too often turn into ‘grumpy cyclops’ (the metaphor of the day!) by taking a certain disciplinary or theoretical perspective, sacrificing depth and complexity on the way. In her illuminating talk she referred to phenomenology, grounded theory, narrative inquiry, and craftsmanship to conclude that the theories, methods and styles of writing with which we approach a domain will set the boundaries of our understanding – a fact that we need to be reminded of more often.
The symposium was topped off by some pretty general, but pointed discussions initiated by Espen Aarseth’s and Andreas Gregersen’s talks. While Espen stated that game studies’ success had become its biggest problem and the field could only be saved by high-quality research programs, thorough ontologies, and a working paradigm, Andreas highlighted some commonalities between game studies and media/communication studies – both fields cutting across several established disciplines and in search of formal ontologies, i.e. an inventory of analytical units and relationships. This also seemed to be the common denominator of this day’s discussion: we should formalize our ontologies, be clear about their origin, be aware of relevant work within the larger scientific community, and cultivate dialogue across perspectives. This (maybe not totally surprising) consensus was complemented by Rikke reminding us that the game studies community can only thrive when it is built on empathy and interest – rather than strategic inclusion and exclusion of perspectives. In sum, the symposium was thus not only a great opportunity for meeting a bunch of intelligent people but also a highly stimulating exercise in academic meta discussion.