Video game studies

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(Redirected from Video game theory)

Video game studies is the still-young field of analysing video games from a social science or humanities perspective.

Although departments of computer science have been studying video games from a functional perspective for years, the study of them in the humanities is still in its infancy. Unlike most computer science efforts which aim to make videogames, videogame studies, like film theory attempts to understand videogames, players, and the interactions between them. Like most fields, those who study videogames often have differing approaches. While scholars use many different theoretical frameworks, the two most visible approaches are ludology and narratology.

The term ludology arose within the context of non-electronic games and board games in particular, but gained popularity after it was featured in an article by Gonzalo Frasca in 1999 "Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitudes and Differences Between (Video) Games and Narrative." The name, however, has not yet caught on fully. Major issues being grappled with in the field are questions of narrative and of simulation, and whether or not video games are either, neither, or both.

The narrativists approach video games in the context of what Janet Murray calls "Cyberdrama." That is to say, their major concern is with video games as a storytelling medium. Murray, in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, puts video games in the context of the Holodeck, a fictional piece of technology from Star Trek, arguing for the video game as a medium in which we get to become another person, and to act out in another world. This image of video games certainly has widespread popular support, and forms the basis of films such as Tron, eXistenZ, and The Last Starfighter. But it is also criticized by many for being better suited to science fiction movies such as those than to analysis of real world video games.

The narrativist approach can also be found in the works of Lev Manovich as well as in the works of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, which deal more with the concept of new media in general than with video games as such, but still fundamentally approach video games as a text that can be read much like a book, poem, or film, and that has many of the same elements.

The ludologists break sharply and radically from this. Their perspective is that a video game is first and foremost just that, a game, and that it needs to be understood in terms of its rules, interface, and in terms of the concept of play. Ludologists such as Espen J. Aarseth argue that, although games certainly have plots, characters, and aspects of traditional narratives, these aspects are incidental to gameplay. In one essay, he memorably claims that "the dimensions of Lara Croft's body, already analyzed to death by film theorists, are irrelevant to me as a player, because a different-looking body would not make me play differently... When I play, I don't even see her body, but see through it and past it." Stuart Moulthrop, another ludologist, takes a slightly more moderate perspective, arguing that one cannot completely divorce games from their social context, but still fundamentally arguing that games are not narratives in any meaningful sense.

In another opinion, the dualism ludology-narratology is quite artificial. Ludology does not exclude the so-called "narratology". See Gonzalo Frasca's article "Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place" in the book Level Up (eds. Copier & Raessens, Utrecht University & DiGRA 2003).

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