Understanding Video Games text-book
Book Review: Understanding Digital Games

Date posted: May 9, 2007
Updated: Aug 23, 2007

Review by John Edwards (John Edwards is pursuing his MA at the University of the West of England and plans to begin PhD studies in games during 2007)


The title of this book suggests a comprehensive overview of the field of game studies and possibly answers to fundamental questions. Alarm bells begin to ring, however, in the Preface, where the editors discuss the potential in games for ‘new ways of developing and telling stories’, and how games have ‘become a focus for new enthusiasms, expertise and communities’, declaring that ‘digital games sit at the centre of a significant combination of cultural, industrial, technological and social phenomena.’ All of this may well be true, but the authors here tend to steer clear of what lies at the heart of the gaming experience, choosing instead to map out areas on its periphery. The editors describe it as ‘an attempt to pull together the diversity and richness of research on digital games’ but there’s very little here about the practice of playing games. One of the contributors, Alberto Alvisi, recognises that ‘games are about creativity, eye-to-hand coordination, skill and fun, and to some extent can be considered a new form of art’, but such considerations are barely touched upon throughout this book.

The book is divided into three parts: History and Production, Theories and Approaches, and Key Debates. In Part 1, John Kirriemuir offers a beginner’s thumbnail chronology of the evolution of game technologies. As such it is a useful precis, although claims such as: ‘we moved from a dot on the screen, to games which share the style and technology of many Hollywood blockbusters’ are pretty useless in that they refer only to the visual aspect of games.

Aphra Kerr takes a political economy approach to the international business of making games, from the pre-development stage to retail. She includes a lot of sales charts, and traces the ‘cycle of activities involved in creating a game and delivering it to the consumer.’ Kerr does an impressive job of marshalling her stats, but her conclusions are unsurprising, for example: ‘Recent research would appear to suggest that the growth of licences combined with consolidation in the digital games industry is making it increasingly difficult for new ideas and third party developers to enter the market.’

Stages of game design are examined by Jon Sykes, who offers (dread phrase!) ‘a set of conceptual tools’. He claims that ‘interactive digital games are but another chapter in the long history of gaming, and the process of game design is much the same, regardless of the actual medium in which the game is situated.’ To support his case he identifies five stages of game design: 1. Concept identification 2. Research 3. Defining game mechanics 4. Balancing game mechanics 5. Game evaluation. He describes game developers’ use of a persona, ‘a fictitious character who embodies the desires and needs of the target audience’ and seems to think this is a good idea. He also recommends the use of ‘mood boards’ to help define and communicate the ‘affective tone’ of a game.

The theories and approaches of Part 2 are derived from existing academic fields. Julian Kuchlich questions how applicable literary theory is to analysing games by attempting three approaches, Poetics (conventions and rules), Hermeneutics (meaning) and Aesthetics (effects). He believes that ‘the terminology of literary studies - terms such as “text”, “narrative”, “protagonist” and so forth… remains indispensible’, although he does recognise that ‘to regard digital games as a storytelling device is not only an oversimplification but a distortion of the medium.’

Geoff King & Tanya Krzywinska demonstrate how concepts from film studies can be used to engage with the visual elements of games, although they understand that ‘games are not films, or some kind of interactive cinema, and should not be studied as if they were.’ Once again, a ‘valuable set of tools’ is offered, including such concepts as point of view, mise-en-scene, iconography and spectacle.

The only authors here willing to discuss players at play with their games are Seth Giddings & Helen Kennedy. They look at games as a form of new media and argue for the importance of the player’s interaction with technology. They concentrate on the newness of digital games and the forms of engagement and experience facilitated by their status as computer hardware and software, showing particular interest in user intervention strategies such as modding and skinning. The concepts of interactivity, simulation and technological imaginary are applied to Tomb Raider, The Sims and Quake.

Part 3 is the least successful section of the book, in which Bryce, Rutter & Sullivan rehearse debates on the relationship between gender and games, and review literature on the relationship between playing games and violent behaviour, questioning assumptions of causality in past studies. Dumbleton & Kirriemuir look at the use of games in education, examining the benefit of using games in the classroom, with inconclusive results.

Rather than arriving at an understanding of games and play, Bryce & Rutter seem more concerned with inviting academics from other fields to find their way into the study of games. They state that Understanding Digital Games is ‘for those approaching the study of digital games for the first time or those wanting to develop an understanding of approaches outside their own discipline.’ They aim to promote a multidisciplinary approach, arguing against game studies as a new discipline, stating that ‘drawing boundaries around academic fields is not necessarily a productive activity’. They see that games ’sit at a junction between a wide range of established academic interests’, but seem more interested in those established academic interests than they are in the games themselves.

Unfortunately for them, they fail to make a convincing case for a multidisciplinary approach by assembling a range of essays that shuffle tentatively around their subject and notably fail to lay a glove on the key issues of gameplay. Their book ‘celebrates the fact that research on digital games provides great opportunities for exploring the potential links and divisions between the different academic areas’. This sums up what’s wrong with this book by betraying its focus on academic fields and their boundaries. This is not the fault of the contributors, who will have been asked to write from their own particular perspective, but what this book lacks is any sense of true engagement with the actual playing of games.

Understanding Digital Games is a misnomer. Perhaps Understanding A Range of Possible Academic Approaches to Digital Games would be a less concise, but more accurate title.

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