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1:50pm on Monday, 30th July, 2012:

On a Dialectic


I was asked in my talk with the ICA Game Studies Interest Group the other day what my view is on the subject of whether academics who write about games should play them. I don't think I've blogged about it before, so hey, here we go.

In general, I don't think it's necessary for academics who study Subject X to be practitioners of Subject X. If it were, the prisons would be full of criminologists. What's important is that they understand their subject matter. Now for games, there's a very easy way to do this: play them. That doesn't mean you have to play them, though, any more than you need to take heroin to study heroin abuse. With games, it just makes it a lot easier to acquire the knowledge you need; it's therefore a good strategy, but not an essential one.

Of course, at some point when you study games you will come up against people who play them. This can lead to problems if you talk to these gamers but don't use their vocabulary. For example, what psychologists call "immersion" isn't what gamers call "immersion", and if you treat them as being the same thing your results will be wrong. Because terms change meaning (as did "avatar" in MMOs), you have to keep current; playing the games is a good way of doing this. However, you can also do it by reading web sites and watching people play, so long as you're alert to it; again, it's a good strategy, but not a requirement. Games can be such time sinks that this is probably just as well.

Although those who both study and play games probably do have the overall advantage, they pay for it in the long term. If you study anything enough, you stop seeing it for what it is and start seeing it in terms of its structure and semantics. The magic of play disappears, to be replaced by a different magic. For designers, the beauty or intelligence of the design of a game replaces the fun of playing it; for researchers, they see everything through a lens of the subject of their research (whether it's AI, community, psychology, economics, law — whatever) . This means that such games are no longer the fun they were before, because the researcher's objective view has come to dominate the subjective view that makes play fun. They may still find such games interesting, even entertaining, but not because of their play; rather, it's because of their understanding of the games. So the disadvantage of playing the games you study is that eventually you won't find playing them much fun. Perhaps more amusingly, you'll be able to grok similar games without playing them, so will find yourself in the don't-need-to-play-to-study-them camp like it or not.

Overall, I think we probably need a balance between those who do and don't play games if we're to get a full spectrum of research on the area. Those who can't see the wood for the trees and those who can't see the trees for the wood ought to be able to cover the trees and the woods between them.

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).