The field of Videogame Studies is still relatively young, as academic fields go. So much so, in fact, that we don’t exactly agree on what to call it. This is due, in part, to the difficulty we have in defining exactly what it is we study. For most people, it is fairly obvious what it is we study. For academics, however, arguing over naming conventions is something we specialize in. While new words enter the English language every year, new words enter academia at such a rate that it’s hard to keep up with the new words being created in a single field. Here, then, are some of the top contenders for the name of our field.
First up is Game Studies. Seems reasonable enough. Our first major journal is called Game Studies, so why not the field? Everything we study falls loosely into the category of “game,” whether it be a text-based adventure or a first-person shooter. This category also clearly includes board games, card games, tabletop games and many other forms of play, which suits me just fine.
The problem with simply calling us Game Scholars? Mathematicians got there first. Game Theory is a branch of applied mathematics that does deal somewhat with games, but is much more focused on topics like economics. You may remember Game Theory from its appearance in A Beautiful Mind. All that zero-sum game stuff? That’s Game Theory.
There are some scholars who simply make the distinction that “Game Studies” is games and “Game Theory” is math. The problems begin when you get people who are “studying Game Theory” or “developing theories of Game Studies.” As I mentioned, academics can get a bit touchy if you call them the wrong thing, so I tend to use “Game Studies” a bit sparingly.
Significantly more descriptive are those who refer to the field as “Computer Game Studies.” This is the name that Espen Aarseth used when he declared us a field in the first place, so it’s certainly not an inappropriate moniker. Indeed, most things we study possess some sort of device that can be considered a computer, whether it be the innards of a Playstation or the simple chip inside a virtual pet. Unfortunately, “Computer Game Studies” are often misinterpreted, particularly in non-academic settings, to mean games written for the PC. Again, we are left with a phrase that requires constant explanation in order to get its meaning across.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the somewhat more pretentious term “Ludology.” I am quite fond of this term (Latin makes it sound nice and academic), despite its relative inaccessibility to laymen. Unfortunately, I can’t just engrave it upon the side of my ivory tower these days. Due to the narratology vs ludology debates in the early years of the field, “ludology” has come to describe a particular subset of the field. More specifically, it tends to refer to the more conservative, system focused scholars who reject more literary approaches to the study of games. Since I don’t really fall into that camp, I tend not to use “ludology” as much as I once did.
It’s very hard to please everyone. Even the term “Video Game Studies” has its detractors. What’s wrong with “Video Game Studies?” Some people have a very narrow definition of the word “video.” While many people are content to use the word “video” simply to refer to the visual component of the system, others adhere to the more formal definition of video technology, which involves the perception of motion through a sequence of still images. They take issue with games like William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two, which used a modified oscilloscope as its display.
While this distinction seems overly particular, there have, in fact, been a number of computer games that were played with no monitor of any kind. Most notably were the games played at the People’s Computing Center in the early 1970s. These ancestors of text-adventure games had keyboards, but lacking the processing power for real-time graphics, used paper printouts to give the player feedback. These games clearly fall within my area of study, but do not technically have a “video” component.
So what do I call the things I study? I, like several other scholars in my field, call them “Videogames” (no space). I call my field “Videogame Studies.” I study interactive, electronic media which takes user input and then, using some form of computational device, procedurally generates some form of output, usually displayed visually. This includes games on a variety of different platforms, including, but not limited to, consoles, computers, handheld devices and phones.
There. I hope that satisfies everybody.
I’m sure someone somewhere will be most dissatisfied by my wordage, but I think I can live with that. The one most annoyed with the term right now would seem to be my spellchecker, which angrily underlines it in red whenever I write it. Of course, after being in grad school for a few years, it should be used to all of the made-up academic words that I throw around.
Of course, I use all of the other terms I’ve mentioned above once in a while. If I’ve been reading a lot of Espen Aarseth, I might refer to the field as “computer game studies.” If I’ve been reading Jesper Juul, I might call it “ludology.” If I feel like annoying the guys that nitpick over what is or isn’t video, I might call it “video game studies.” It all depends on the context. It doesn’t particularly matter to me, as most Universities don’t have a department of ludology, videogame studies or anything close. My classes are usually grouped under “new media” (though debating what that is could take another few pages).
In any case, if anyone ever questions my word choice or wants to get into an argument over spaces vs hyphenation, I can simply send them to read this post.