Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis 

by Espen Aarseth

Summary

Aarseth begins the piece by discussing who is studying games–the interdisciplinary nature of game studies is staggering. He argues that this interdisciplinarity also has made it difficult to have a methodology for games, because scholars are looking at them from so many different angles. His focus of the paper is to present method, rather than theory, “since the approach is empirical, and not limited to any particular theoretical result or model” (1). He also distinguishes between ‘games,’ and says that this is particularly interested in games in virtual environments, so this fits some computer games, but also some non-computerized games such as Dungeons and Dragons, for example. He explains that these games have three dimensions and these three dimensions have types of game research perspectives associated with them:

  • Gameplay (the player’s actions, strategies and motives) [sociological, ethnological, psychological, etc.]
  • Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules) [game design, business, law, computer science/AI]
  • Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures, etc.) [art, aesthetics, history, cultural/media studies, economics]

He refers to some other work done by scholars such as Lars Konzack, who sets out seven layers that are necessary for a scholar to look at when analyzing a game: hardware, program code, functionality, game play, meaning, referentiality, and socio-culture. Aarseth complicates this structure, by explaining that Konzack’s system seems to place equal importance on all seven, when depending on a scholars interests and research questions, it makes more sense to focus on two to four of those layers, rather than all seven.

He argues that there are three main ways of gaining knowledge about games. “Firstly we can study the design, rules, and mechanics of the game…e.g. by talking to the developers of the game. Secondly, we can observer others play, or read their reports or reviews…Thirdly, we can play the game ourselves” (3). He argues that while the first two can be immensely helpful in informing an argument being made, it is most important that the scholar plays the game being analyzed. He makes this point multiple times over the course of the article, also making the comment that the player should be relatively skilled at the game being analyzed.

In response to the questions “How do we analyze games?” he says, “It all depends on who we are, and why we do it” (6). He offers the following as tips, or reminders, as we do game research:

  • Choose games that will not only confirm our hypotheses, but also potentially refute them.
  • Instead of theory, “it is more important to present a well-argued analysis that commands previous scholarship and breaks new analytical ground” (7).
  • Using and applying theories from other fields can be valuable, but not always.
  • Playing is essential. It should be used with the other ways of gaining knowledge previously mentioned.
  • Analysis should contain reflection on the sources used.
  • “Critical self-awareness..should always be practiced” (7).

Things Change

Based on my reading for Paper #1, when I read Espen Aarseth’s editorial letter in the first issue of Game Studies, it seemed clear in 2001 that Aarseth was particularly focused on making game studies it’s own discrete discipline, and he saw the work of scholars in fields like English as colonizing games. His stance on this seems to have changed a bit by 2003 when he wrote this article, and this stance likely explains why video games analysis methods are elusive. He writes, “It seems clear that there cannot be only one field of computer game research. Already, approaches from AI/computer science to sociology to education explode the field in almost a dozen directions…With such variety, how can we even dream of creating a single field for the study of games” (1-2).

This seems like a very different approach from the one in 2001–the recognition of game studies as interdisciplinary, and that it should be interdisciplinary is important I think to an overall understanding of the articulation of methods for game studies, and the difficulty of determining what methods are and are not appropriate for game studies.

This also presents a challenge for me as I begin to do my own work in game studies, because it requires me to be critically aware of how I’m approaching games in terms of the larger game studies scholarship community, but also to be aware of the methodologies and what is accepted within English Studies.

Dimensions of Game Analysis

I briefly want to return to Aarseth’s list of game dimensions and what disciplines would likely be interested in studying which dimension.

  • Gameplay (the player’s actions, strategies and motives) [sociological, ethnological, psychological, etc.]
  • Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules) [game design, business, law, computer science/AI]
  • Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures, etc.) [art, aesthetics, history, cultural/media studies, economics]

As I thought about Aarseth’s three dimensions, the list of the dimensions he presents makes it seem as though each discipline would likely look at only one dimension. This may be overly simplistic, or it may be that many disciplines do in fact only look at one dimension. But,  I realized that work on games through the discipline of rhetoric and composition likely looks at more than one dimension at once, rather than only one. For instance, when I looked at how women rhetorically negotiated gender in World of Warcraft, all three of these dimensions seem like points worth looking at, but I did dedicate chapters to both discussions of gameplay and game-world, because it seemed like otherwise the picture wasn’t complete.

References

Aarseth, Espen. “Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis.” Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. 2003.

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