I arrived at the Form, Culture & Video Game Criticism conference in a fog. Not a metaphorical fog but a rolling Transylvania fog so thick that even the locals seemed a bit unnerved by it.
In fairness, there was a bit of uncertainly reflected in the fog. After all, this conference was sponsored by the Princeton English Department. English departments, as you might know, are the natural habitat of those awesome creatures, "the literary critic." Fearing I'd be structuralized and deconstructed into a hyper -analytic corner and wholly consumed like other wayward wanna-be intellectuals, I pulled my coat around me and dove into a Princeton bar hosting the pre-conference social gathering
In no time at all they surrounded me. Quickly the conversation turned toward video games. and no one seemed to want to leap into Foucault, not even the cheerful Brit, Barry Atkins (who I was to discover liked nothing more than making terribly complex things perfectly understandable).
The next morning, we reached the rich and regal Princeton campus and climbed the stairs to the towering the lecture hall that was all very "Mr. Chips." Dark wood and leaded glass windows created a sanctuary feeling I'm sure it's designers intended while the hard wooden desks must have been designed with the philosophy of "break the student's body and their mind will grow."
Co-organizer Roger Bellin set the tone of the conference with a call to think of games as "interesting and complex things filled with meaning." With that, we were off. The 14 presentations and papers attracted an audience of roughly 100 people scattered through the day, with many sitting patiently through the entire proceedings. The crowd seemed divided by students of culture, literature and computer science, a number of self-described "gamers" curious to see what the academics had to say, a couple of journalists and a few teachers.
The conference provided a compressed picture of some of the intellectual activity going on in video game studies today. In a short summary, it was clear that early attempts to define the discipline or argue against a sort of "academic colonization" were hopeless. The ideas flowing into the area of video game studies from all quarters hold great promise to energize the notion of studying something as banal as video games. The literary critics were not going to leave our beloved game world, I discovered. Then again, neither were the musicians, lawyers, cultural studies folk, computer science departments or anyone else.
The fact I gathered over and over again at the conference, and one I think that has been missed in the past, is that the variety of people studying games--even those who don't happen to call themselves "ludologists"--still share a common passion and pioneering spirit that all gamers have. Yes, even those literary critics care about games. They are not just looking for new flesh to cut into with their surgically sharp tools, new organisms to viciously slash into categories for serious study later.
No, the people at the conference study games because they like games. They are interested in thinking and theorizing about games because they like playing games.
With that perspective as a point, the counter-point was made clear. Some academics want to talk about games as a way of making games, or making better games. Other academics have no real interest in what happens with their insight, once produced and published. This distinction, knowledge for knowledge sake, is the sort of attitude that makes the game industry nervous. So with no obvious industry presence (well, there as one guy with a Game Developers Conference shirt on) the tone of the talking was more open-ended theorizing. When the conversations turned tactical, it was about appropriateness of method, the limits of discipline and the rashness of talking about games in a tenure-track academic department.
What the conference stood for, and what it signaled, were credibility, quality, momentum and clarity of the field of video game studies. Borrowing the prestige of Princeton's ivy, game's studies took another step away from the dubious shadows of the arcade and parent's basement. Bellin and Dexter Palmer did a commendable job of pulling together a surprisingly diverse and passionate group.
As a summary of my feelings about the conference, I'm more convinced than before that in our rush to stake out the field of "ludology" we may have left behind some of the necessary tools and personalities from the established disciplines (yes, those lit critics again!). Likewise, I am more convinced than ever that without a rapid and passionate attempt to form video game studies as something in and of itself, then the area will collapse into something unrecognizable to the people that enjoy the games themselves. And to keep from ending up there, we need to remember the fun.
As a result, I'd say the best presentation of the conference was final speech, delivered by Atkins. I'll discuss the content in more detail below. But the nut of his speech was actually about the heart of the video game. Why do we play games? Because they are fun. Why did we start studying games? Because they are fun. If we think ourselves up, over and around the fun, then the research methods and conceptual apparatus don't matter. Video game studies will just be an autopsy, the patient having died.