Video Game Studies at the Norwich Gaming Festival

In this blogpost, Dean Bowman (PhD student in the Department of Art, Media and American Studies, and Features Editor for gaming website Ready Up) introduces the forthcoming Games Study Day, organised in partnership between UEA and the Norwich Gaming Festival. Please do come along and hear our exciting programme of talks (Thursday 31st March, 10am-4pm, The Forum, Norwich) You can find out more details here and sign up to attend the talks via a simple Eventbrite form. We hope to see some of you there!

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Dean Bowman and Dr. Tom Phillips (both UEA, right) appear alongside George Beard (NUA, centre) and the Norwich Gaming Festival Organisers.

“Computer games are a bit like duck-billed platypuses, a species which, as Harriet Ritvo has documented, confounded early naturalists; some of them denied that such a creature could exist and denounced early reports as fraud, while others sought to erase all ambiguities about its status, trivializing any problems in classifying this species – which has a duck bill, web feet, and lays eggs – as mammals.” – Henry Jenkins

This is a statement made by Henry Jenkins in response to criticism of his classic article ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’. The analogy was designed as a counter to a particular polemic in early game studies: the heated argument between ludologists, who sought to study games chiefly for their ludic elements; and narratologists, who sought to interpret them as part of a larger narrative tradition, both tended to be reductive approaches to an already complex phenomena. But it also spoke to the larger academic establishment’s resistance towards acknowledging videogames as a worthy object of study at all. As videogames and the industry that surrounds them have continued to grow and mutate in strange and fascinating ways, the analogy becomes all the more appropriate on a variety of levels.

As a multimodal medium par excellence, videogames are capable of emulating and utilising every pre-existing medium to date; they not only incorporate the narrative of literature, the liveness of theatre, the visual nature of film, and the audible qualities of music, but they transform each of those things as well as fundamentally challenging the relationship of the user to the work in their heady mixture of interactivity and immersion. As with the duck-billed platypus, it’s increasingly difficult to define exactly what videogames are, who plays them and how they should be studied. This latter point is an issue that game theorists have argued over for decades now – with the aforementioned ludology/narratology debate being the top billed fight in the process of drawing up and policing boundaries for the discipline. But it is also a debate that has played out in the industry and is evident in the sheer variety of genres that exist – from platformers and first person shooters, to simulation games and match 3 puzzles – each of which demonstrates a very different approach to the medium, with very different emphasises on the ludic/narrative continuum; leading to a vast array of categories of game, many of which share very little in common.

Furthermore the audience for games is bigger and more diverse than it ever has been and now considerably encroaches upon and competes for audiences for film and television – the subjects that UEA has traditionally hung its hat from. Year on year research carried out by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE), trade bodies for the US and UK games industries respectively, demonstrates this growing level of cultural saturation and additionally reports that the age range of gamers continues to rise (with the average gamer now being in their late thirties), just as the split between male and female gamers has gradually evened out. As Jesper Juul has argued, in his book of the same name, there has been a ‘casual revolution’ with mobile and social media games driving a massive sea change in the industry, just as the rise of the immensely creative and experimental indie games movement continues to challenge the mainstream commercial games industry at virtually every level, resulting in an explosion of new forms and ideas.

Truly, the age old cliché of videogames being seen as the flippant, geeky pastime of teenage boys in their bedrooms is now wholly inappropriate; rather all this points to videogames being the most vibrant and vital media of our age. This rapid mainstreaming and diversifying of the medium, sometimes very much resisted by a traditional ‘hardcore’ of gamers (this is much of the reason behind the recent Gamergate movement), creates an urgency, I think, for the medium to be studied at an academic level. Just as UEA has been a pioneer in fields that initially struggled for academic recognition in the past (film studies and creative writing, for instance, in which UEA became academic leaders), my hope is that we can make the same impact in this burgeoning field, which is becoming increasingly difficult (irresponsible, even) to ignore.

With this in mind, I’d like to introduce a day of talks organised by myself (Dean Bowman) and Dr Tom Phillips on 31 March 2016, which we hope in some small way will demonstrate the importance of, and the growing interest in, studying videogames within the humanities. For two years the Forum has hosted the Norwich Gaming Festival, an immensely successful week long celebration of the cultural significance of games, featuring playable demos of independently made games from near and far, two days of fascinating industry talks and numerous skills workshops supported by The Norwich University of the Arts. This year UEA will contribute to this exciting event by hosting a day of introductory academic talks designed to explore and give a grounding in several key issues of interest to academic game studies, as well as to demonstrate the wide range of knowledge and theoretical approaches to game studies that can already be found at the university.Norwich Gaming Festival team

Dean Bowman, who is working on his PhD in the department of Film, Television and Media Studies, will kick off the day by discussing the categories of videogame narrative put forth in Henry Jenkins previously mentioned article in relation to the PS4 game Bloodborne. Dean also acts as deputy editor of the community blog Ready Up , where he co-hosts their acclaimed podcast, and is assistant editor of Intensities, a journal of cult media. Next, Dr Paul Gooding, UEA’s very own Eastern Arc Research Fellow of Digital Humanities, will speak about the fascinating and problematic issue of games preservation. Co-organiser and Lecturer in the Humanities, Dr Tom Phillips, will then speak about the cultural importance of the game industry via a case study of the phenomenon that is Minecraft. Tarnia Mears (American Studies), who is currently writing her PhD on gender in videogames, will tackle the topical issue of representation in games, asking whether they might be able to move beyond a binary approach to gender. Finally Merlin Seller, who is currently writing a PhD in Art History here at UEA and working as a lecturer at NUA’s Game Design course, will draw on phenomenology and visual cultural studies to discuss games as experiential objects, using the example of the horror adventure game SOMA. You can read some of his insightful thoughts on videogames at his blog Dear Player.

We hope to see some of you at the event on Thursday 31 March 2016 (10am-4pm), but if you can’t make it we’re hoping to record the talks and put them online. The talks are about 20-30 minutes long with space for questions and are intended to appeal to scholars and the curious gaming public alike. You can find out more about the event and book places at the talks here.

All images credit: christaylorphoto.co.uk
All images source: The Forum, Norwich

Works Cited

Entertainment Software Association, 2015. 2015 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data: Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.

Jenkins, H., 2004. Henry Jenkins responds in turn [WWW Document]. Electronic Book Review. URL http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/well-syuzheted (accessed 12.15.15).

Juul, J., 2012. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

UK Interactive Entertainment, 2015. The games industry in numbers [WWW Document]. URL http://ukie.org.uk/research (accessed 2.8.16).

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