Game Studies

From Colonization to Columbian Exchange

Representation of Alberti's window (perspective drawn using a front picture plane). Engraving (modified) from G. B. Vignola, La due regole della prospettiva practica, 1611.

Dominic Arsenault is an assistant professor at the Department of art history and film studies at the Université de Montréal. Audrey Larochelle just graduated with an M.A. in film studies from this department. Dominic launched, and Audrey worked as research assistant for a research project on graphical technologies and innovation in the video game industry.

The State of the Disunion

As a film studies professor holding both an M.A. and Ph.D. in film studies, I spend my days telling people around me that games are not only “not a form of cinema”, but also that cinema is not a viable lens to discuss the visual nature of video games. This is rather strange, considering the department where I work is neatly divided into two relatively independent sections: art history on one side, and film studies on the other. Game studies have been, thanks to my colleague and former mentor Bernard Perron, present at the Department for over ten years now, but resolutely as part of the film studies section. With my colleague Carl Therrien, we now have 3 professors specialized in game studies, around 20 students doing M.A. and Ph.D. work on video games, an undergraduate Minor degree in game studies averaging 50 students a year, an official M.A. option in video game studies, and a game lab dedicated to historical preservation with more than 60 consoles and 2000 games. This suggests that it may only be a matter of time before our dual-headed department turns into a three-headed Gleeok.

Possible future of game studies @ UdeM’s art history and film studies department.

Possible future of game studies @ UdeM’s art history and film studies department.

But for now, all of this is happening squarely in the Department’s film studies section. There are many reasons for that, and most of them are, in my opinion, logistically sound, but analytically bad. “Back in the day”, as we might say, Espen Aarseth warned game studies researchers against “theoretical imperialism” (1997, p.16), that is, the blind copy-pasting of theories from another field onto games, as if they were a kind of literature, or a kind of cinema. And while we know that games are not just a kind of cinema (my colleagues and I have actually dedicated many articles to the topic 1), we see them lumped together all too often, as if the superficial similarities of images moving on a screen could provide a fruitful lens of analysis in spite of their profound differences. Fundamentally, while cinema’s specificity owes to the film camera’s capture and replaying of the real, the video game’s specificity lies in the construction of images through computation. Thus, if there is a form of cinema that is appropriate to approaching the video game, it is animation film – incidentally a certain form of other cinema, not-quite-cinema-in-the-standard-sense-of-the-word. 2 This makes my personal positioning as a film studies professor pretty problematic, given my twin beliefs that:

1) The video game, among narrative media, has profound similarities with literature and only superficial similarities with film;

2) The video game, among visual media, has profound similarities with art history and only superficial similarities with film.

I don’t know how my personal situation compares with some of my fellow game studies colleagues. I suspect people working on learning and education in games might have more in common with other people in more formal education, but even the most closely-knit relationships are bound to have a need to go beyond their own field and to draw methods, analyses, theories and other considerations from neighboring fields. I’ve come to see myself as a professor of 2 things and a student of 6 things. As if the evolutionary process of the field/discipline of game studies (it’s not over yet) had to go through a phase of adaptation from its researchers: being a game studies researcher no longer means, for me, to apply or revise theoretical models or approaches to account for the specificity of games, but to devise projects from certain aspects of games and then to reach out to other fields or disciplines to see what kind of models or methods they have that could be useful.

I am currently writing a book on the Super NES for the MIT Press’ Platform Studies collection, and for that purpose I am reading papers in business, management and economics. Some of my colleagues are developing an interest in data mining and visualization, math and statistics, something we have never done in our school of film studies before. I don’t claim to be speaking for everyone doing game studies, but I personally feel that there’s no telling where we’ll stop, and no shore is off-limits to the curiosity boat ride we’re all on. To rework the old spatial metaphor of game studies as a continent, we’re not facing hordes of imperialists coming from their lands and trying to stake out the New World. Rather, we have game studies researchers doing game studies on this new continent and participating in a great big Columbian exchange between fields of research, a bidirectional sharing that enlightens both worlds. Where these researchers come from is not important; where they set their sights and cast their anchors, and what they choose to share and how they choose to bridge, is what we should be interested in. In other words, it’s time to take off our disciplinary glasses and to use games as a spyglass.

A paper that Audrey and I co-authored and presented at DiGRA 2013 in Atlanta provides a nice illustration of this new direction. (It is new to me, that is; no doubt many researchers have been doing this for a while now. Maybe I was just slow to catch on.) This paper stems from a research project funded by the FRQSC (Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et Culture) and titled “Graphical technologies, innovation and aesthetics in the video game industry: a case study of the shift from 2d to 3d graphics in the 1990s” 3. I’ve had the chance to work with excellent students on this research: Pierre-Marc Côté, Audrey Larochelle and Sacha Lebel all have been invaluable in researching documentation, elaborating a theoretical apparatus and providing thoughtful analyses to refine our initial hypotheses.

The following summary of our paper wishes to underline the importance of reaching out to other disciplines, and to do cross-disciplinary research (Audrey had done undergraduate studies in art history, and read many books and papers from this discipline as part of the research project). We point out the importance of developing a visual history of video games following the multiple visual traditions of art history, technical drawing, and geometry. The aim is to demonstrate how visual representations of video game spaces influence the player’s engagement. 4

2. The Spatial Representation of Video Games Through the Scope of Visual Projections

In this open-minded relation between the visual representation of video games and theoretical disciplines, the first reflex is to seek for visual and historical connections. First, if we consider the video game image as a result of computation and graphical rendering, we could draw from theories in relation to mathematics and geometry, since in early video games, graphic representation was driven by concepts from these disciplines and moving in a direction other than visual realism. Early video games rapidly favored the mathematical overhead, top-down, or side-scrolling points of view and their associated parallel projections. With the development of hardware and graphical technologies, schematic graphical representations evolved into more advanced pictorials, and as a result, more realistic depictions of the world. Graphics progressively integrated perspectival effects, such as scrolling backgrounds, multiple background layers, and eventually background layers scrolling at different speeds. The rise of real-time polygonal 3D graphics eventually cemented perspective as the new technological default point of view.

Renaissance perspective definitely had a great deal of influence on our modern conception of visual representation and perception of space. Indeed, numerous specialists of visual disciplines such as art history already painted that picture of how today’s world is determined by the paradigm of perspective (Damisch, 1987). As such, if we consider video games as a visual representation of space, we can’t help but think about how methods of representation as old as Brunelleschi’s (mid 15th century, Florence) can still teach us so much about modern forms of art. But while scholars also use this reason to associate video games to more modern forms of representation such as cinema, we have to point out that video games were not always reaching to perspective (and its illusionistic sense of immersion). In other words, the real-time polygonal 3D spaces that appeared during the 1990s and have come to represent almost the entirety of the AAA video game production follows only a certain paradigm of the image when considered as a whole, and 2D video games depict their in-game spaces by resorting to very different visual traditions that encompass multiple graphical modes of projection beyond perspective.

Graphical projection answers to a defined objective: making a three-dimensional reality visually intelligible on a two-dimensional surface. As such, graphical projection is a protocol that includes various methods of spatial representation, and we will focus here on two very different traditions that create particular types of relationship with the image and space in video games: perspective and parallel projection. In a nutshell, what distinguishes those two techniques is whether they are object- or subject-centered. While perspective is subject-centered and tries to simulate human vision by its use of a vanishing point (lines running parallel in the object’s structure are made to converge towards a given point in the drawing’s “background”, following rigorous methods outlined by Alberti), parallel projection is object-centered and tries to simulate the physicality of an actual object by respecting its basic characteristics in terms of dimensionality (lines running parallel in the object’s structure are represented as parallel on the projection plane that is the 2D drawing).

In considering both of these techniques in video game graphics, we have been brought to think that they must have an influence on the visual relationship with in-game spatial representation. Perspective, on one hand, offers a single predetermined viewpoint that changes accordingly to the position of the player/character. Just as perspective offered in paintings, it encodes the visual representation as a “gaze”, representing a single point of view on the world, that is, the point of view is diegetically coextensive with the world it portrays. Parallel projection, on the other hand, gives a rather rigorous detailing of the physical properties of the world represented, reminiscent of maps and architectural drawings, eschewing the notion that this viewing of space should correspond to any given observer’s spatial perception.

The choice of one or another graphical projection instills a particular spatial dynamic which lends itself to a specific type of gameplay. For example, parallel projection in management games such as SimCity 4 (Maxis 2003) afford the player a non-position outside the game space, which allows him to operate on it from a distance. This kind of representation does not attempt to convey what the player would see if he were to gaze down on his city while floating up above; the image is drawn in parallel projection according to the exact angles and measurements of the space and game objects so that the player can plan and develop his city efficiently, with mathematical precision. At the opposite, perspective projection invites the player to adopt an immersive stance toward the game space. In many games using perspective projection, as in Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar 2010), the gameplay revolves around exploring and inhabiting the game space rather than managing it from a removed position.

As should be apparent, the choice of a visual concept in video games is rarely done for the purpose of subscribing to an artistic or philosophical visual tradition, but mainly for functional considerations. The design of a game can also be motivated by a technical economy of the game implementation, or the desire to reach a specific genre clientele by imitation of similar games in the video game tradition. This opposition between the subjective gaze and the objective space still constitutes the heart of many interrogations about aesthetic or conceptual choices in visual representation in art or architecture, but also in game design.


Discussant’s Reply

Jose P. Zagal is a game designer, scholar, & researcher. He is Assistant Professor at the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University where he teaches game design and ethics.

I will admit that my first reaction upon reading Arsenault and Larochelle’s piece was defensive. I had flashbacks to the heady days when a significant portion of the academic work on games seemed more concerned with credentialism, positioning, and establishing authority than exploring interesting research questions. Games are <Y> so, as a scholar in <Y> I am entitled to study them. End of paper. Move along, nothing else to see here.

Fortunately, the authors do not dwell on the past and move quickly towards describing their present and outlining possible futures.

The notion of ‘bidirectional sharing’, exemplified through a summary of a DiGRA 2013 paper they co-authored (Arsenault and Larochelle 2013), caught my attention the most. As I understand it, bidirectional sharing is the idea that academic fields can benefit from each other’s work and contribute to each other’s understanding of their own field. For instance, a game studies researcher examining a multiplayer online game could benefit from insights, methods, and theories from behavioral psychology. Similarly, the field of behavioral psychology benefits from what game researchers know about games, players, and play.

While bidirectional sharing is not a novel idea, it is one that we should reflect on more often. I never really understood Aarseth and Eskelinen’s concern with ‘colonization’ from other fields (Aarseth 2001; Eskelinen 2001). It’s defensive and unproductive. If anything, we should be wondering about reverse colonization. Perhaps the following questions should serve as our guides:

  1. As a game researcher, what theories, methods, and tools are out there that I can borrow from other fields in order to do better games research?
  2. As a game researcher, if I want my work to have an impact, I need to look beyond my field. How can I contribute back to those fields I’ve been cheerily plundering from?

Maybe it is a selfish perspective – but overall, wouldn’t our field benefit?

Aarseth, E. 2001. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies 1 (1).

Arsenault, Dominic, and Audrey Larochelle. 2013. “From Euclidean Space to Albertian Gaze: Traditions of Visual Representation in Games Beyond the Surface.” In Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA Conference: DeFragging Game Studies. Atlanta: Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA).

Eskelinen, M. 2001. “The Gaming Situation.” Game Studies 1 (1).

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Arsenault, Dominic & Audrey Larochelle (2013). “From Euclidean Space to Albertian Gaze: Traditions of Visual Representation in Games Beyond the Surface”. DiGRA 2013 conference proceedings. Online: (Accessed April 1st, 2014)

Arsenault, Dominic, Pierre-Marc Côté, Audrey Larochelle & Sacha Lebel (2013). “Graphical technologies, innovation and aesthetics in the video game industry: a case study of the shift from 2d to 3d graphics in the 1990s”. G|A|M|E, no.2 (ed.). Online: (Accessed April 1st, 2014).

Damisch, Hubert. 1987. L’origine de la perspective. Paris: Flammarion.

1. See the Ludiciné website for the former research project “History and theory of early interactive cinema” (2004-2008). Publications are available on a variety of connected topics from the website: (Accessed April 1st, 2014)
2. This is the subject of a chapter to appear soon in an edited book: Arsenault, Dominic (2014). “Pourquoi l’image vidéoludique n’est pas (que) cinématographique : Les racines plurielles des technologies graphiques dans l’historiographie du jeu vidéo”. In Du média au postmédia : continuités, ruptures (Nicolas Dulac and Martin Lefebvre, Eds.), Éditions L’âge d’homme, Lausanne (Switzerland).
4. The more interesting contribution the paper makes, in our view, is the Axial-Spatial Play (ASP) model we develop to have a better vocabulary when discussing game graphics, but which we can’t summarize here. The full paper can be accessed at the DiGRA digital library (see the References).