Player Practices (3): The Three Discourses on Games
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
When game studies was asserting itself as a new field in the late 1990s, it did so against a background where the primary discourse surrounding games at the time was not in any significant sense academic. The first discourse on games was pragmatic, and corresponds to what we now call game design, but it began long before this term gained its contemporary sense and content, in the manufacture of board games. This hit its stride in the nineteenth century, as the mass produced boardgame industry took over from the games for the moral instruction of children from the previous centuries. Both these game paradigms are related to the four that Caillois identified (discussed last week), combining elements from all four but belonging to none.
Commercial boardgames were competitive, but except in rare occasions they did not consist in a fair trial between competitors as is the case in Chess and Go/Weiqi. They used chance but in a frivolous manner quite removed from the surrender to fate – indeed, for many centuries they used a spinner known as a teetotum rather than dice in order to create conceptual distance from gambling. They had moments of vertiginous panic (e.g. landing on ‘Go to Jail’ in Monopoly) but only trivially. And they entailed simulation, pretending to represent within the world of the game, but at an extremely crude level.
The discourse of game design (as it would come to be known) did not primarily consist in talking about games, but about a different kind of statement: the rule. Indeed, by encoding their player practices as written rules with the aim of having new players learn those practices from written rules, the discourse of game design created the illusion that the rules were the game itself, rather than simply a formal expression of the practices of their play. Boardgames were the vanguard of this advance, which accelerated in the 1950s and 60s with the Avalon Hill wargames and their imitators, which had far more complex rules than anything previously in wide circulation. This was a significant paradigm shift in both the play (and discourse about) games.
At the same time, fairground entertainments were advancing in complexity and breaking from Caillois’ pattern of vertigo into an entirely new game paradigm. Developing out of bagatelle and other such games of chance (that were not strictly Caillois’ games of fate), pinball and pachinko – like boardgames – combined elements of the classical player practices to create a new game paradigm very different to what came before. These led directly to the electro-mechanical arcade games, for which Sega was a major creator, and thus to the videogame, which initially produced largely inferior electronic versions of what had been done mechanically in the preceding decade. There are numerous examples: the player practices of Midway's Sea Wolf from 1976 are directly inherited from Sega's electro-mechanical cabinet Periscope (pictured above), which was released exactly a decade earlier in 1966. The rise of diverse arcade cabinets in the 1960s represents another game paradigm shift, one that the digital arcade simply picked up, rather than initiated.
The third part of Foucault’s Archaeology explains that distinctions between discursive formations depend upon identifying contradictions, some of which are intrinsic – like the contradiction between rule-play and role-play that characterises the RPG game paradigm and its player practices (discussed at length in The Essence of RPGs). However, some are extrinsic and mark separation between one paradigm and another, like the contradiction between the rule-specification of the boardgame paradigm, and the experiential design of a pinball table. Indeed, in terms of discourse, what characterised the arcade game paradigm (which extends decades earlier than the videogame) was a general inability to talk about the design simply as a set of rules.
From pinball onwards, the rules were only a small part of the experience, which was sensory in ways that spanned tactile, audio, and visual. Designers of such games learned from playing each other’s games more than they learned by exchange of written rules, as the tabletop lineage did, especially with the advent of role-playing games in the 1970s. Thus by the 1980s we have, in addition to the four classical game paradigms that Caillois identified, an increasing number of additional paradigms in the cross-bred space between them (as indeed Caillois discussed and critiqued).
The second discourse on games arrives in the late 1990s, calling itself game studies. I suspect it would have called itself ‘game theory’ if economics had not already claimed that term for the mathematics of competition. It is marked, from the very beginning, by the need to distinguish itself from pre-existing discourses – and in particular to make a break from narratology and media studies, which were just starting to take an interest in videogames as they became more overtly narrative. This is a particularly intriguing situation from the perspective of Foucault’s archaeological techniques since the narratives studied in media studies are precisely the game paradigm that Caillois called mimicry – precisely the medium people struggle to accept as games for aesthetic reasons that I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics. So there is a certain irony to game studies not only positioning itself in conflict with the narrative game paradigm, but also in choosing as its object of study the videogame, thus unifying a diverse set of player practices that by Foucault’s methods should be considered distinct game paradigms.
Game studies, unlike game design, is a discursive formation that is not in any positive way influencing game paradigms. It is solely an observer, and exclusively of what it calls ‘videogames’ or ‘digital games’. This narrow focus is testified by its primary association calling itself ‘the Digital Game Research Association’. Even today, other kinds of games are treated as distinct objects of study – at this year’s DiGRA conference, the role-playing games summit does not even appear in the programme, and had its own separate timetable. The game studies journal Games and Culture rejects submissions that are clearly about games and culture if the games in question are not videogames. The official mythology of game studies is that videogames are a distinct and unique medium that must be treated separately from all others – including tabletop games, which at best are treated grudgingly as a distant influence. This is the digital exceptionalism that I have criticised repeatedly, and exposed by showing that player practices in videogames descend and directly relate to other game paradigms.
However, it is not other games that game studies is obsessed with keeping out, but those discourses that are concerned with the narrative game paradigm. Hence the famous ‘ludology vs. narratology’ debacle that is to game studies what Romulus and Remus are to the Roman Empire. The official story – if you talk to those allied with ludology, at least – is that ludology triumphed, by showing the uniqueness of the videogame. Foucault’s archaeology suggests a different understanding: game studies is underpinned by the intrinsic contradiction between ludology and narratology, the latter of which was never banished but simply driven underground by the reigning orthodoxy that insists videogames must be understood by borrowing scientific techniques and never by the methods of the humanities.
Ironically, when the third discourse on games arrives it too buys into digitial exceptionalism and presents the videogame as its object of study, in total disregard to the different game paradigms collected by the term ‘videogame’ and the myriad connections to other non-digital paradigms. As much as Brendan Keogh tries to paint game studies as predicating ‘videogames as games’ in his seminal essay Across Worlds and Bodies (as opposed to his battlecry for game criticism of understanding videogames as videogames) he lines up with game studies perfectly. He even uses references that are exactly the foundational matrix of game studies to emphasise his point. This third discourse is not a new discursive formation at all, but the uprising of the suppressed intrinsic contradiction between the sciences and the humanities within game studies, returning to take its vengeance.
Next week, the final part: The Liberation of Games
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