Utopic Dreams

Critical Approaches to Researching Video Game Play

Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar.  He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo.  Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.


“In this case, competitive players with a degree in humanities were three times more likely than those who obtained their last degree in hard science to engage in a culturally productive practice, that is, to be ‘fans.’” — Samuel Caovoux, describing his reflexive look at his World of Warcraft ethnographic research, in “The Quantitative-Qualitative Antimony in Virtual World Studies,” Utopic Dreams and Apocalyptic Fantasies: Critical Approaches to Researching Video Game Play

When a discipline begins to coalesce from a loose collection of related studies and approaches, it’s only to be expected that there will be some conflict over how it is to be conducted. And, if the discipline is large enough, its subdisciplines may experience similar struggles. Game studies has long since passed its emergent stage, and, in this 2010 book, Utopic Dreams and Apocalyptic Fantasies:Critical Approaches to Researching Video Game Play, we see further coalescence, as various scholars focusing on the sociological approach to game studies present their methods and argument. The book is edited by Talmadge J. Wright, David G. Embrick, and Andras Lukacs, and in the book’s introduction, they elaborate on the theme of the title, that utopic visions and apocalyptic concerns aren’t in any way new to culture, but contemporary society now places these dreams and concerns in our play and games to a new, heightened degree. The general discussion done, the editors turn to the typical main topic in the introductory chapter of any anthology collection: an outline the book’s essays. In this case, the essays in the group are grouped into three parts: modern play and technology, marketing culture and video game business, and researching video game play. While the anthology contains a variety of interesting essays, it fails to perform its own coalescence, in that it doesn’t manage to unite the essays into a comprehensive discussion.


The modern play and technology section is the largest of the three, being comprised of six essays. The first piece is by Thomas S. Henricks, who wants to update Johan Huizinga’s seminal study. Huizinga is probably best known for coining the (in)famous game studies concept of the magic circle, but he was also interested in the historical development of play, and was very much opposed to the changes he saw coming with the industrial age, where the meaning of play was taken out the hands of the ordinary person. Henricks extends and modifies Huizinga’s argument, by claiming that we need to take technology and context into consideration. The videogame allows a break from the organized, hierarchical forms of play, but it can still be used to perpetuate societal patterns, and players, designers, and theorists need to recognize both sides. The second essay, by Ken S. McAllister and Judd Ethan Ruggill explore similar territory, but through a different means, delving into Ernest Bloch’s notion of utopia. Bloch argued that the movement towards the betterment of society means we need to both be critical of our surroundings, and act on the result. For game studies, that means it’s not just enough to pursue ludic impulses inside of games; we need to extend those impulses to how games are made, and how they are studied. (Offhand, it occurs to me that, whatever else one may think of her methods, no one embodies this approach more than Jane McGonigal and her “world-changing” type ARGs, such as World Without Oil.) In game studies’ desire to be taken seriously, it’s dismissing the very thing that makes it distinct and valuable.

Lauren Langman and András Lukács look at play in games in terms of the carnivalesque. Starting with Marxism and moving to the Frankfurt school and Marcuse, they recap current thought on consumerism and alienation. This alienation ties to play, as Huizinga (as Henricks notes as well) argued that this alienation is a symptom in turning from play. Bakhtin’s carnivalesque is a form of play that focused on equalization and empowerment, offering a pressure valve and escape from the day to day hierarchies. The virtual equivalent of the carnival is the MMO, but in a peculiar way, as it is a merge of work and play, of freeform activity and hierarchical action. Derek Noon and Nick Dyer-Witheford take things in a rather different direction, with an intense close-reading of the Metal Gear Solid series. The series is very critical of American corporate culture and global empire, and self-reflexive, containing both humor but also examination at a meta-level at the process of training soldiers. At the same time, the game embraces the very military culture it renounces, by encouraging the player to indulge in warrior culture fantasies. The result is something schizoid and strange, worth examining for its contradictions. The chapter ends with Alanna R. Miller’s examination of online embodiment in terms of symbolic interactionism. She establishes the subject with other sociological approaches, including Turkle’s claim that virtual bodies are anchored through an identity created by text and image, and Nakamura’s statement that prejudice continues online in old ways and new, including new opportunities for identity tourism and passing. Her conclusion is that it’s not a mind-body split between virtual and real, but a multiplicity, with an online identity acting out different parts as the need arises.

The second section moves from play to the business and marketing side of video games. It beings with Paul R. Ketchum and B. Mitchell Peck. Examining hundreds of advertisements in game magazines from 1992 and 2009, they wanted to see what those ads said about how games are portrayed, in terms of representations of women and minorities. What they find is that the representations are (surprisingly) proportionate for women and minorities, but both men and women tend to be highly sexualized, and portrayals of minorities lean towards broad stereotypes. William H. Kelly looks at censorship in videogames, with a focus on Japan. He explains the governing body, CERO, and how it works with companies who perform their own level of self-censorship (see Nintendo). Some of the reasoning behind Japan’s censorship is fairly obvious—they don’t allow the denotation of a nuclear bomb that blows up a town in Fallout 3, for example. But they also are opposed to violence against dead bodies, and Kelly speculates that this opposition comes from Japanese traditions concerning funerary rites and the disposal of bodies. Rebecca Carlson and Jonathan Corliss continue with a related issue, game localization. They situate localization in the wider frame of globalization, with those in charge of localizing acting as gatekeepers. They note that these localizers have a vested interest in reinforcing notions of regional difference, even when their day-to-day practice in developing the game is more nuanced.

The third and final section looks more closely at sociological approaches to game studies in general, and ethnographic studies in particular. The first essay in the section is another by András Lukács, in which he argues that if game studies is about to become less interdisciplinary and more fractured, then ethnographic based game studies is going to have to position itself to show what it has to offer as an alternative (but not an opposition) to positivist scientific methods. To illustrate his point, he offers some of his own studies of World of Warcraft, arguing that personal involvement in play is necessary to contextualize the data received. The responsible ethnographer must balance university’s unfamiliarity with virtual studies with an ethic approach, and get involved without letting emotion or a desire to control the results interfere with the study. Nicholas Ducheneaut supplies a study that is a little less reflexive, but still ethnographic, as he studies the communications between players on a Counter-Strike server. Counter-Strike’s design meant that deceased players would often remain to comment on the play of the remaining players, adding an element of performance to those remaining players’ play. At the same time, the social structures of the clans were decided in large part by extra or meta game elements, such as being part owner of a given server, or having particularly high skill scores. Finally, the last essay in the book is by Samuel Coavoux, who takes a broad look at sociological game studies approaches, with studies that focused on World of Warcraft in particular. Using his own studies as an example, he argues that rather than pit qualitative and quantitative methods against each other, it’s better to play them off each other; quantitative methods are good for generalizations about large groups, and qualitative interviews are good for contextualizing information. The important thing is to recognize both have limitations, and neither is the absolute authority for its expertise.


Of the three sections, I think the section on play is the weakest. Aside from the excellent essay by Dyer-Witheford and Noon, the essays are all very general, more skeletal frameworks for future essays than an argument in themselves. There’s a tendency in essays published in anthologies and journals for game studies to avoid talking about actual games, and the result is a theory that is somewhat distanced from any practical application. What would a playful study of play look like? How do gaming communities respond to the carnivalesque? The essay on embodiment wasn’t even about games, so much as virtual actions in general. Granted, these issues are all directly applicable to game studies, but by not drawing their arguments to something more concrete, I think the authors in this section missed an opportunity to really demonstrate what is at stake. (And again, the Noon and Dyer-Witheford essay is a perfect example, in my opinion, on how an essay can combine the general framework with a specific case.) I realize that these authors probably didn’t have much room available, or their project may simply not have been at a stage where such application was practical, and I sympathize. Then again, perhaps it’s less about the individual essays and more about the nature of the subject. Perhaps the problem is that play is such a general and vague concept in itself that it’s difficult to discuss it in anything but general terms.

Of the other two sections, I have less to say. The business and marketing essays were interesting, though the study game advertising left some obvious gaps, which the authors recognize. (Such as: 1992 and 2009 are rather arbitrarily chosen years, advertisements for games have moved away from the magazines to a large degree, console gaming is somewhat different, especially in the 1990s and earlier, because of the large number of games imported from Japan—for a start.) The ethnographic section was more interesting, as it called for a study not just of games, but how we study games. I applaud the awareness that any area of game studies should be critically aware of its own practices, and act accordingly. On the other hand, when I say “how we study games,” I mean “we” in the broadest possible sense, as the methods discussed in this section certainly don’t refer to the traditional methods of a humanities student trained in English literature and language studies. (Coavoux, when describing the extreme end of qualitative study, refers to the practices of humanities-based studies as ethnography, and lumping me with ethnographers probably offends the ethnographers more than me.) Taken in terms of its intended audience, the essays from this section constitute some very thought-provoking arguments regarding not just what sociological studies in videogames should constitute, but, by implication, what sociological studies in general should constitute. On a more personal note, I think the humanities absolutely bring something worth having to game studies. Just as games studies from a sociological approach shouldn’t be limited to quantitative surveys and data mining or interviews and player testimony, game studies should also include elements of philosophy, media studies, and close-reading of the actual game, all of which are practices that a scholar trained in literature and rhetoric is well-suited to provide.

To take a step back and look at the anthology as a whole, the three sections fail to really come together. While the essays within each section fit well together, the sections themselves are rather disparate. And the supposed binding element, with a handful of exceptions is barely present. You’ll notice I rarely mentioned utopias or dystopias in the summary above, and that’s because the authors didn’t either. Ideally, an anthology is a mix between a diversity of perspectives and a unity of topic, and while this anthology excels in the former, it fails in the latter rather thoroughly. Individually, some of these essays are extremely well-written and on topic—with the exception of some of the play section, everything is, individually, very strong. But they not only lack a fully unifying theme, they fail to address the supposed unifying theme that is presented, in title and introduction, which detracts from the anthology as a whole. Granted, this anthology is meant to be read with its sister volume, Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play: New Research in Digital Media and Technology, which is a book with the same editors that fills some of the gaps here,through a focus on social-psychology, social inequalities, and fandom in games. But for the book at hand, Utopic Dreams and Apocalyptic Visions is a whole less than the sum of its parts.


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