Feed-Forward Scholarship

Why Games Studies Needs Middle-State Publishing

Essay - Feed Forward Scholarship

We have an opportunity to influence the production and reception of games. But not as observers and commentators.

In the next few pages I will outline two major forms of scholarship. One relies on feedback and the other on feed-forward. Let’s start with the former. Feedback scholarship shares a number of similarities with cybernetics. The phrase ‘cybernetics’ comes from the Greek word meaning steersman, as in the one who steers a ship. The man or woman steering a ship responds to the environment by adjusting the direction of the boat. In this case, the wind and the water provide feedback and the person steering the boat acts as a homeostatic mechanism, adjusting the course according to the feedback. Increasingly, I get the feeling that Games Studies is focused on maintaining the course but there’s not a lot of focus on the ultimate destination. In other words, Games Studies scholarship is inherently homeostatic.

In order to understand this claim we need to define a few terms. Feedback: “the modification or control of a process or system by its results” (Google). We can think of scholarly texts, such as journal articles and conference papers, as a means of modifying or controlling the discourse on a subject. The following approaches to Games Studies all posit a base set of rules or criteria to which games either adhere or diverge:

  • narratology
  • ludology
  • platform studies
  • procedurality

Narratology, for instance, examines games as narrative structures and the games themselves provide feedback for the validating of the theory. But feedback is often part of a larger process called homeostasis: “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements” (Google). Some examples of homeostatic mechanisms include:

  • thermostat (regulates the room to match the set temperature)
  • digital camera (e.g. brightness correction on a camera adjusts the light levels to increase visibility)
  • journal articles (in defense of: narratology, ludology, etc.)

It’s important to note that homeostatic tools cannot modify themselves. The thermostat and the digital camera effect change only based on feedback from the environment.

Now, if Games Studies is inherently homeostatic, then there must be something that our research practices are keeping stable. In this case what’s being maintained is a certain set of rules or values that dictate the assessment of games (in other words, the criteria by which something is deemed successful or valuable). Thus, a new game is released, and scholars respond through feedback mechanisms such as blogs and journals, thereby upholding the rules or values they associate with games studies. A game like Call of Duty: Black Ops may confirm certain values: perhaps the belief that mainstream, mass-marketed games rely on relatively simple mechanics. Whereas a title like Journey may revise our rules: maybe the critical and commercial success of Journey suggests that compelling experiences don’t need sophisticated graphics and intricate mechanics. Or, to use an example from above, games are seen as the result of an underlying theory—such as narratology—from which they develop. Scholarship can and often does act as a means of stabilizing discussion on a subject by maintaining the rules and criteria by which the subject is assessed (i.e. the criteria of narratological analysis). In such cases games are often cited to validate this stabilizing process—game x validates theory y. But the games themselves, through feedback, have already informed the theory: the effects are determining the causes.

The problem here is that scholars are almost exclusively vocalizing their values in response to the actions of producers (game developers) or consumers (player reception/behaviour). On top of that, scholars communicate these values solely to each other. Effectively this means that we are participating in a process of self-regulation where we refine and adjust the rules of our discipline in order to match the games themselves. Which is despite the fact that we clearly have some larger sense of what a game is, given that we are constantly in need of adjusting whatever rules we’ve somewhat agreed upon. This brings to mind Meno’s Paradox:

  1. If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary.
  2. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible.
  3. Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible. (S. Marc Cohen)

And we can rather easily apply this to the ‘what makes a game a game’ paradox.

  1. If you know what a game is, inquiry is unnecessary.
  2. If you don’t know what a game is, inquiry is impossible.
  3. Therefore, inquiry into what constitutes a game is either unnecessary or impossible.

Now, one answer to Meno’s paradox comes from the post-structuralists: they believe that it is the act of inquiry itself that defines the object inquired after. In this way, the temperature of the room isn’t really quantifiable until it is defined by the thermostat. And a game isn’t a game until a community defines it as such through a series of communally formed rules. Effectively, this means that a community is guided by an ideal that is both a product of culture and a producer of culture. For example, chess is a game understood through monarchic forms of government but it also reinforces the roles within that government (soldiers as pawns, kings as valuable to success but limited in direct power, queens as strategic forces, etc.). But this means that inquiry isn’t simply feedback but there’s also a feed-forward component as well, one where the game itself (in terms of its structure, form, rules, etc.) interprets the culture.

For someone like Foucault the feed-forward component is an ideal shared by the community that is realized through inquiry. To return to our boat metaphor, this ideal is the direction we’re headed in, that we either consciously or unconsciously correct our course towards. But just as in cybernetics, our ability to control where we are going is largely dependent upon the technology available to us. Journal articles and conference papers, by their very format, are intended to regulate discourse, but web pages, forums, user-friendly development tools, game jams, and computer-mediated communications in general are more autopoietic. That is, they help realize an objective or destination, in this case a game or a theory of games, rather than merely guide us towards an indeterminate end-point. Alternatively, without thought to the over-arching ideal guiding the development of games, we will continue to adjust our theories based on what’s available (feedback), which, in turn, causes us to regulate what constitutes a game and the proper study of games (homeostasis). This ideal is already implicit in any criticism; it just gets misconstrued as emerging from what games are (materialized theories) rather than what they could be (theoretical material—i.e. theories themselves).

Feed-Forward Scholarship

In contrast with feedback, feed-forward scholarship argues that scholars should facilitate the production of the texts they desire to study. This wasn’t a real possibility with technical and communicational barriers, such as the inaccessibility of game development tools and the inability to converse with developers and players. However, those impediments have been significantly reduced in recent years, to the point that we are now fundamentally misusing the tools at our disposal. On this very subject Marshall McLuhan’s wrote that:

“Our typical response to a disrupting media technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. Failure to notice the new opportunities is also failure to understand the new powers…This failure leaves us in the role of automata merely” (McLuhan)

The new opportunities include the possibility of influencing game development and audience reception. The new environment is one where games scholars are an integral part of the production of game culture. Our reliance on games as a means initiating feedback is a failure to notice this opportunity before us. And the reactive journalism and scholarship demonstrates our role as automata.

Fortunately, we are well positioned to take on a more active role. After all, as players, we are already familiar with the principles of feed-forward scholarship. There’s timeliness, such as the last-second move to strategically place a block in a game of Tetris. Then there’s the recognition of patterns, such as the flow traffic in a game of Frogger. And then the dynamics of conversation, such as working your way through a dialogue tree in a game of Fallout. Thus, we have timeliness or what rhetoricians call kairos, the recognition of patterns or what Aristotle referred to as topoi, and lastly conversation or debate. These three elements are oriented towards navigation rather than course-correction. And they all happen to be core elements of what is referred to as middle-state publishing.

What is middle-state publishing?

Middle-state publishing refers to publications that persist between informal, decentralized blog posts, and formal, centralized journal articles. Middle-state publications typically accept submissions from a wide audience, they publish frequently, and address emergent issues in a timely fashion. In short, they are digital publications that have the timeliness of blogs but the critical attention to detail of a journal. In part, the need for middle-state publications arises from the long waiting period associated with print journals. Such a format prevents sustained conversation and enforces a set of guidelines. The print journal format has its advantages and it tends to work better for some disciplines than it does for others. Literary studies, for instance, can more easily develop over time as literary texts tend to be more stable.

On the other hand, disciplines that deal with digital artifacts are more dynamic: games, for instance, change over time, such as the movement from beta testing to proper release, as well as patches, mods, expansion packs, and hacks. And that’s not to mention the potential for multiple play-throughs that can alter one’s interpretation of the text. Several weeks ago a new side quest was discovered in Final Fantasy IX, thirteen years after the game’s original release. The point is, games, perhaps more than any other cultural artifact, are very dynamic and unless we determine where we want to go with them, we’ll continue to find in them what we were already looking for. Unchecked, this leads to articles that appear to be automated responses. It’s as though the ideas are preceding their expression in the games themselves and once they appear in a game, whether partially or fully, they can at last be expressed. In this way, games become the evidence for the values and beliefs we already hold but failed to express.

Instead, what we need find ways of doing just the opposite: of expressing our values and beliefs through games. Now, we aren’t all programmers and level designers, nor do we need to be. Players and scholars alike can influence the development, reception, and perpetuation of mechanics, trends, and tropes. But not by discussing such issues in a publication which can take up to a year or more to release content. Instead a publication with peer-review or at least an editorial staff can post critical, accessible material in a timely fashion. By engaging the community of developers and games at the right time, we increase our capacity to exert a measure of influence on developing events. This is the kairos component of middle-state publishing.

Then there is the repetition in the blogosphere. Commentaries on a recently released title or a controversial advertising campaign create an influx of content that demonstrates the potential for near-instant publication of ideas, thoughts, and emotions. However, this can prove over-whelming and potentially reactionary rather than measured and focused. From the position of middle-state publication, a contributor can assess the trends emerging among the responses and formulate a hypothesis based on the reaction and the issue in question.

Lastly, the slow pace of journals and the decentralized nature of blogs make it exceedingly difficult to sustain a debate. In journals, debates unfold across publications and authors can cleave to disciplinary jargon and practices. However, these debate can often be more effectively resolved in a real-time discussion rather than a protracted debate. Conversely, academic bloggers, with their inter-mixture of personal experience and academic opinion, can become embroiled in indirect conversation, where disparate bloggers talk at, through, or around other authors and issues. Middle-state publishers can centralize the debate, provide timely responses, and generally foster constructive conversation.

Why Games Studies needs MSP

Ultimately, games studies can and will benefit from an increase in middle-state publications. But the argument here is that Games Studies needs this format. We need middle-state publications because by not participating in directing the discussion on games, we invariably perpetuate a set of ideals, values, and even a form of scholarship that misrepresents our role as players as passive consumers and our role as scholars as passive commentators.

Consider the following graphic, which reflects five years’ worth of tags on GameStudies.org.


Here, the larger the word, the more often the tag was cited. This image, obviously, a narrow view on the articles themselves but it is useful in identifying areas that attract the most critical attention (MMOs) and those that are marginalized (gender and ethics). Perhaps most noteworthy of all, however, are those terms not present at all, such as feminism, misogyny, ableism, and racism. In fact, these marginalized and missing terms likely indicate imminent areas of research, and it’s the task of middle-state publications to facilitate that emergence into a full-fledge discussion.

First Person Scholar

In December 2012 myself and three other PhD students in the English department at the University of Waterloo launched FirstPersonScholar.com, a middle-state publication focused first and foremost on the study of play. I am currently the editor-in-chief of the publication, as well as the web designer/web editor. We publish an article every week in an essay, commentary, book review, or interview format.  With 34 articles and counting, we have covered a wide range of topics. Despite my lofty ambitions, FPS is a step towards feed-forward scholarship, rather than a prime example. But I do have three articles that speak towards the potential for more meaningful conversations in middle-state publication.

In “The Other Difficulty Mode,” Samantha Allen expanded upon remarks made by author John Scalzi that being a straight white male is comparable to playing a game on the easiest difficulty mode. Allen extended the comment to her reading of Halo and the skulls that can be placed on one’s experience in order to increase the difficulty by modifying certain in-game parameters.  This not only earned Scalzi’s respect—which crashed our site—but it tapped into a wider discussion taking place on forums and blogs across the web. In part this is because Halo offered a mainstream comparison, one that easily resonates with both casual and more serious gamers. Here was a metaphor that gamers could intuitively understand. And so when Allen offers up some of her own real-life skulls at the end of the article, the point couldn’t be made any clearer. In short, it was a timely piece that forwarded a much needed discussion in a manner that only gamers could truly appreciate.

With Sara Gibbons article “AutiSim and Representation,” we have a critical commentary on a game about autism from someone that specialises in digital media and disability studies. This article resonated with a larger community of scholars, drawing comparisons with on-going discussions but for the first time through the study of games and gameplay. And while the piece was critical of the game in question, the creator of Auti-Sim remarked that he enjoyed reading it. Again, a timely piece, but one that also reached the developer.

Lastly, two feature interviews demonstrate the value of asking authors critical questions about their recent works. Both Jesper Juul and Brendan Keogh were interviewed about their 2013 publications. But rather than ask preliminary questions, our interviewers pursued more challenging lines of inquiry, discussing contemporary issues and pushing for clarity at points of obscurity. Here the speculation about intended meanings and hypothetical scenarios was put aside in favour of direct conversation.

Ultimately, FirstPersonScholar is an attempt to position our contributors as part of the production and reception of games. I don’t think many would disagree that this is by far the best time to be a games scholar. We currently have more funding, more critical attention, more mainstream interest, and more gamers than ever before. But such a moment in the spotlight will pass and when that happens we’d be better off as a part of the production of games rather than observers of a diminished industry that doesn’t represent our values or critical opinions.