Understanding Video Games text-book
Computer Game Research 101- A Brief Introduction to the Literature

Date posted: December 1, 2002
Updated: Oct 23, 2006

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)
Published: December, 2002.

A few years ago there wasn´t much to talk about. Now, however, computer game research is booming resulting in common terminology, competing paradigms and serious discussion on the subjects of games and gaming. This article attempts to provide an introduction to the field of computer game research.

Computer games, like other media, have taken some time to register on the academic radar screen. Film, although treated seriously early on (e.g. M´nsterberg, 1916), was not considered an entirely valid research field until the 1960s which saw the birth of actual academic departments. Games, now 40 years old, are starting ´ quite suddenly ´ to attract attention from a wide range of disciplines. Only five years ago it would be possible to survey the entire field of game research without raising much of a sweat. Sociologists and psychologists had attempted to map behavioural effects, but not in ways that warranted special attention compared to similar studies on other phenomena in the same league. Today, scholars from fields as diverse as comparative literature, graphic design, computer science, film studies and theatre studies have contributed to the understanding of the phenomenon of computer games. In the following I try to convey a crude map of the field. I attempt ´ but do not hope to succeed ´ to provide a balanced view of what is essentially a non-unified research community with huge differences in outlook and priorities.

Work within the effects paradigm
Plato in his time worried that the technique of writing would be harmful to human knowledge. Since then most new media have been greeted with warnings as to expected detrimental effects to society, community and especially the minds of children and the young. In the late 1970s arcade games began to generate worry as to their effects on gamers.

The studies conducted to address these worries typically relied on quantitative methodology and often attempted to correlate certain behavioural aspects with amount of game use. The number of studies in this category is rather large but the results have not lead to a consensus. Thus researchers do not agree whether games have negative or positive effects on behaviour (or perhaps no effects at all). Some of this confusion, at least, may probably be attributed to the casual way in which much work within this paradigm treats the issue of genre. One is not likely to be able to generalize results across very different types of games. Nor is it obvious that one should be able to generalise between age groups.

Egli and Myers (1984) citing Californian survey data found that gaming could not be considered addictive and that arcade guests were not special in alarming ways.
McClure and Mears (1986) did not find correlations between heavy game use and mental disorders or delinquent behaviour.

In the same positive vein G. D. Gibb et al. (1983) found no evidence for negative effects of gaming and in fact found that gamers of both genders scored lower than average on measures of obsessive-compulsiveness.
Other studies, however, some relying on more direct observation have concluded that gaming did affect young gamers negatively e.g. Ellis (1984) and Mehrabian and Wixen (1986).

Schutte et al. (1988) and Irwin & Gross (1995) found that young children would imitate themes from games in subsequent play.

One relatively large study (n=447) found that games released tension in frequent gamers but that these gamers also had increased chances of coming into contact with the police (Kestenbaum & Weinstein, 1984). The latter result does not seem to rhyme well with results from other studies.

A large range of further studies were conducted in the 1980s, most however with rather small populations and few (if any) with an eye for long-term effects.

In the 1990s Jeanne Funk has conducted a number of studies mainly aimed at measuring effects on empathy. Funk et al. (1998) found that players who preferred violent games showed lower empathy levels than others. These gamers were also considered to have other problems in Funk & Buchman (1996).

With such studies it should be noted that we have no way of making claims as to the direction of causality. Young gamers may play violent video games because they have problems or it may be the other way around.

Explicitly linking the research to real life violent episodes Anderson & Dill (2000) found that ´real-life violent video game play was positively related to aggressive behavior and delinquency.´ and that ´laboratory exposure to a graphically violent video game increased aggressive thoughts and behaviour.´

It is interesting how effect studies have provided rather inconsistent results for the better part of the twentieth century. Some have argued that this should lead us to conclude that the question of media effects simply cannot be answered in a quantitative way often making the case ´ quite convincingly ´ that many of these studies (not all) suffer from a lack of theoretical backing. Why should we expect to see behavioural effects?

Notably, it seems that disciplines are severely divided on the subject. While (some) psychologists continue to work within this paradigm many media and communication scholars seem satisfied to delegate the question of direct effect to the annals of science history considering it unanswerable and unscientific.

Broader cultural perspectives
A few authors have taken up the challenge of putting games in their proper (pop) cultural perspective. No major work which claims academic status has been written within this category to date, however. Journalistic accounts such as J. C. Herz´ Joystick Nation (Herz, 1997) and Steven Poole´s Trigger Happy (Poole, 2000) have chronicled gaming culture and in the case of Joystick Nation done so fairly systematically. Other works which deserve mention under this heading is psychologist Sherry Turkle´s The Second Self (Turkle, 1984) and Life on the Screen (Turkle, 1995) which both seek to address the philosophical and social implications of gaming and computer culture more generally. Janet Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck (Murray, 1997), also paints a broader picture of games in relation to cultural and technological changes whereas Cassel and Jenkins (1998) examines the gender aspects of gaming and gaming culture.

MUDs and virtual worlds
Multiple-User Dungeons or MUDs have long been of great interest to a wide variety of scholars. Whereas these phenomena have appealed to philosophers for addressing the gap between reality and simulation they have appealed to linguists for pinpointing issues of social construction of reality, to sociologists for providing valuable laboratories for the study of social dynamics and to literary scholars for challenging boundaries between readers and authors. Their academic popularity is quite understandable. MUDs, however, remain on the fringes of game research as they are often closer to chat rooms than to mainstream games.

Richard Bartle, father of the first MUD, has written a report on the genre (Bartle, 1990) and has commented on the types of players and how they fit into MUDs of either the ´game´ or ´social´ type (Bartle, 1999).

Empirical studies of social dynamics in MUDs have been presented by Curtis (1992) and Curtis and Nichols (1993) some of which were presented to a wider audience in a humorous article by Jullian Dibbell (1993).

Commenting upon psychological and cultural aspects of MUDding, Turkle (1995) also provided a readable introduction to the phenomenon as such.

Other valuable contributions to the study of MUDs include Reid (1999) who focuses on power and control in a sociological perspective and Pargman (2000) who provides an empirically based analysis of life in a Swedish gaming MUD.

The history of computer games
Surprisingly little has been written to systematically chronicle the history of computer games. We have yet to see the emergence of anything approaching a text book on this subject. Nevertheless, various authors have made contributions to a common understanding of the history of games.

Steward Brand´s Rolling Stone article on one of the very first games ´ Spacewar ´ is often referred to (Brand 1972) as is J. M. Graetz 1981 article on the same subject (Graetz, 1981).

Actual book-length efforts do exist. Leonard Herman´s Rise of the Phoenix (Herman, 1997) is a serious attempt to tell the general history of games. Sheff and Eddy´s Game Over (Sheff & Eddy, 1999) focuses on Nintendo from the perspective of business journalism and Kent´s The First Quarter (Kent, 2000) provides a great deal of information on the game business, albeit in a non-structured manner.

The literary perspective
Computer games, especially adventure games, attracted the attention of literary scholars quite early on. Adventure games such as Adventure (Crowther & Woods, 1976) and Zork (Infocom, 1981) ´ although primitive ´ were obviously attempts to tell stories in a new medium. Furthermore, their interactive nature made them obvious tools for discussions on the relationship between author, text, and reader and particularly interesting for literary theorists addressing postmodern (and not so postmodern) theories of reader autonomy.

These perspectives on games were among the first to gain academic popularity outside the effects paradigm. At present, however, this is not a mainstream approach to game studies which have turned in other directions, particularly towards issues of design and gameplay which I´ll discuss below.

The literary perspective, then, has been around for quite some time but few works in this field are widely referred to. Some major works, however, do exist. Mostly, Espen Aarseth´s Cybertext (Aarseth, 1997) is a milestone which is rarely ignored. Aarseth analyses the special case of games (and other software types) as texts linking games and interactive fiction to an age-old literary tradition of labyrinthine (or ´ergodic´) texts. Apart from its systematical analysis of several key issues and its serious treatment of game history the popularity of Aarseth´s work may probably also be attributed to his discussions of computer games as a potential academic discipline in itself.

Another widely influential work on the subject is Janes Murray´s Hamlet on the Holodeck (Murray, 1997). Murray is less strict in her methodology than Aarseth but supplies a wealth of ideas as to possibilities for interactive narratives and games as a medium with special characteristics.

During the late nineties much effort was put into determining whether interactivity and narrative were mutually excluding categories and thus whether ´real´ interactive fiction was nothing but a dream (see Smith, 2002). It is not clear whether the question was resolved to the satisfaction of all participants but it seems that other questions are now considered more important.

Ludology and gameplay
In recent years a new perspective has come into vogue, that of ludology (the word was introduced in Frasca, 2000). While the term is sometimes used fairly broadly its founding father, researcher Gonzalo Frasca, defines it as including videogame theory but going ´beyond it to include all games and forms of play´ and stresses that ludology ´ that is ´the study of games´ ´ does not try to understand games through existing media (theatre, film etc.). Rather, ludology attempts to examine the game-specific dynamics of games, such as the relationship between rules, strategy and game outcomes (Frasca, 2001).

Thus, ludology apart from being a reasonable perspective in itself also exists in some opposition to other perspectives and does arguably see itself as a ´purer´ approach to games than those that have borrowed extensively from other disciplines established in order to study different phenomena.

A thorough examination of many of the issues involved can be found in an article by Jesper Juul (Juul, 2001) whose article The Open and the Closed (Juul, 2002) seems to fit well into the ludological perspective without siding explicitly on the issue.

Approaches, such as Juul´s, that focus on the illusive concept of gameplay attempting to discover what exactly makes a game fun to play fall within the ludology category.

Furthermore, Aarseth (1997), while not employing the term is called upon by this perspective as a founding text since it can be seen as arguing that games should be analysed as systems rather than as narratives.

Other perspectives
While the texts mentioned above are frequently referred to they by no means represent the entire field of computer game research. Most importantly, perhaps, the topic of game design has attracted much systematic interest in the last couple of years. Design texts often balance between rules of thumb, best practices and actual research which places them somewhere in the periphery of the academic field of interest (to a game designer it may seem to be the other way round). Much knowledge on game design is collected at www.gamasutra.com and a small collection of books seem to have established themselves as reference points among many designers (e.g. Rouse, 2001).
It some ways programming issues such as the construction of artificial intelligence in games may belong with issues of design but such perspectives also have obvious interdisciplinary components.
Finally, questions of games as tools for education have received some attention at least since the early 1980s. There are, of course, interesting similarities between the learning perspective and the effects paradigm although the motivation for the research varies acutely.

Truly telling, one might argue, is the fact that the world´s first peer reviewed academic journal dedicated to computer game research (www.gamestudies.org) was launched in 2001. With this and the high number of recent academic conferences computer game research is increasingly becoming an actual ´ if still small- academic field characterised by actual informed discussion and the crucial sharing of knowledge.

Works cited

* Aarseth, Espen J. (1997). Cybertext ´ Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. London: Johns Hopkins.
* Anderson, Craig A. & Dill, Karen E. (2000). Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life. In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 78, no 4, 2000.
* Bartle, Richard (1990). Interactive Multi-User Computer Games. Colchester: MUSE Ltd.
* Bartle, Richard (1999). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades ´ Players Who Suit MUDs. Colchester: MUSE Ltd.
Brand, Steward (1972). Spacewar - Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums. In: Rolling Stone, 7th of December, 1972.
* Cassel, Justine & Jenkins, Henry (eds.) (1998). From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
* Dibbell, Julian (1993). A Rape in Cyberspace or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society. The Village Voice, December 21st, 1993.
* Egli, Myers (1984). The Role of Video Game Playing in Adolescent Life: Is There a Reason to Be Concerned? In: Bulletin of the Psychodynamic Society 22, no. 4, 1984.
* Ellis, Desmond (1984). Video Arcades, Youth and Trouble. In: Youth and Society, Vol. 16, no 1, 1984.
* Frasca, Gonzalo (2000). Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative. http://www.ludology.org/ludology.html.
* Frasca, Gonzalo (2001). What is ludology? ´ A provisory definition. http://www.ludology.org/ludology.html.
* Funk, Jeanne B. & Buchman, Debra D. (1996). Children´s Perceptions of Gender Differences in Social Approval for Playing Electronic Games. In: Sex Roles, no 35.
* G. D. Gibb et al. (1983). Personality Differences Between High and Low Electronic Game Users. In: Journal of Psychology 114, 1983.
* Graetz, J. M. (1981). The Origin of Spacewar. In: Creative Computing, August, 1981.
* Herman, Leonard (1997). Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of Videogames. Rolenta Press.
* Herz, J. C. (1997). Joystick Nation ´ How Videogames Gobbled our Money, Won our Hearts and Rewired our Minds. London: Abacus.
* Irwin, Roland & Gross, Alan (1995). Cognitive Tempo, Violent Video Games and Aggressive Behaviour in Young Boys. In: Journal of Family Violence, Vol. 10, nr. 3.
* Juul, Jesper (2001). Games Telling stories? - A brief note on games and narratives. In: Game Studies, Vol. 1, no. 1. http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/.
* Juul, Jesper (2002). The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression. In: M´yr´, Frans (ed.) (2002). Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings. Tampere: Tampere University Press.
* Kent, Stevel L. (2000). The First Quarter ´ A 25-Year History of Video Games. Bothell: BWD Press. [AKA The Ultimate History of Video Games]
* Kestenbaum, Gerald & Weinstein, Lissa (1984). Personality, Psychopathology and Development Issues in Male Adolescent Video Game User. In: Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry. Vol. 24, no 3, 1984.
* McClure and Mears (1986). Videogame Playing and Psychopathology. In: Psychological Reports 59, 1986.
* Mehrabian, Albert & Wixen, Warren J. (1986). Preferences for Individual Video Games as a Function of Their Emotional Effects on Players. In: Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Vol. 16, no 1, 1986.
* M´nsterberg, Hugo (1916/1970). The Film ´ A Psychological Study. London: Dover Publications.
* Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck ´ The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
* Pargman, Daniel (2000). Code Begets Community ´ On Social and Technical Aspects of Managing a Virtual Community. Link´bing: Link´bing Universitet (thesis).
* Poole, Steven (2000). Trigger Happy ´ The Inner Life of Videogames. London: Fourth Estate.
* Reid, Elizabeth M. (1999). Hierarchy and power: social control in cyberspace. In: Kollock, Peter & Smith, Marc (eds.) (1999). Communities in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge.
* Rouse, Richard (2001). Game Design: Theory and Practice. Wordware Publishing.
* Schutte, Nicola S. et al. (1988). Effects of Playing Violent Video Games on Children´s Aggressive and Other Behaviours. In: Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 18, 1988.
* Sheff, David & Eddy, Andy (1999). Game Over ´ Press Start to Continue. Gamepress.
* Smith, Jonas Heide (2002). The Road not Taken ´ The How´s and Why´s of Interactive Fiction. Game Research. http://www.game-research.com/art_road_not_taken.asp.
* Turkle, Sherry (1984). The Second Self - Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster.
* Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen ´ Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Phoenix.

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