PhD Candidate in Japan, researching Narrative in Games. Responds favorably to Thrash Metal, Karaoke, and Dungeons & Dragons.
Games are Utterly Awesome, but Why?
March 21, 2013
One of the hallmarks of good research is the demonstrable ability to navigate from Point A (which is the challenging of basic assumptions) to Point B (the logical and credible analysis/discussion/verification of the initial contention). It is the ability to get to the heart of some notion that you have a hunch about, and to prove that hunch right or wrong with some workable degree of logical finesse.
Having stated as much, I have to admit that I was reminded of this fact very recently. My professor asked me, "So, how can we tell which games have a story deep enough to consider studying?"
In the rush to begin contributing to the academic community of Game Studies at large, I had sort of skipped over that very foundational consideration. In other words, I was already walking very briskly toward Point B, but I had forgotten to properly consider Point A before embarking on my journey. I want to say that something like this is common for researchers, a rookie mistake, if you will, but I can't verify that notion so suffice it to say that I "got caught" by the question.
In semiotic domains, distilling meaning from any symbols present within a creative work is the name of the game. The problem is that the degree to which you can "interpret" the symbols of a work is variable and debatable, and even relative to the context used by the analyst. Considering also that it is completely plausible to gain new insights that weren't originally placed there by the author, and you end up with a very sticky situation. It becomes evident that there is no singular, duplicable answer to the question, "which games have stories deep enough to study?"
But you have to admit--we all intuitively know which games are chock-full of meaning. We really do. Whether that's because we were deeply moved upon finishing a great RPG, or completely enthralled by the plot of a game even whilst in the midst of the gameplay, or simply because we were able to take away something from just the synergy of imagery of a particular game, we all know which games are significant in that regard.
Indeed, the question "How can we tell which games have stories deep enough to study?" is a kind of trap (Ackbar 1983). Asking this question to even the most avid of gamers or those thoroughly-entrenched/imprisoned in the ivory tower will succeed in producing no definite answers, and instead most likely yield thinking noises as opposed to words or sentences.
On the contrary, simply asking any of these same people the question "Which games have deep stories?" will likely yield answers that are both numerous and varied. I believe that it was this question that I initially used as my Point A.
We all know, dare I say, in our accursed nerd hearts, which games are worth investigating.
The true critical pursuit here, then, is to understand why we all know which games are worth looking at critically. Why has Knights of the Old Republic been the mortar with which so many Game Studies practitioners build their academic fortresses? Why is Fallout continually cited in academic work in this field? It cannot be simply that these games were long or brimming with content. It is because these games were "deep" in some very significant respect.
But how can we explain "deep" in a way that is academically-robust?
Admittedly, there is no easy answer. But I believe that our beliefs, impressions, and gut-feelings on any given game are valid indicators of such inherent "deepness" of game experience. This "depth" is of course not just limited to the realm of game narrative. Rather, it is the comprehensive "game experience" that has depth. Effective games are rarely ever reliant on any one factor, function, or medium, and are instead typically a symphony of how all aspects--graphical, audio, interactive, narrative, and otherwise--come together to create that" game experience" that inspires players to dub them "deep."
"Why does this game have depth of meaning?"
"How does it achieve this effect/convey these meanings?"
Answering these questions with care, diligence, and a logical attention to detail, is the very definition of a career in Game Studies. And rightfully so, given that it may take the span of several careers to formulate effective answers.
We are at an exciting time, people: we are both blessed with the opportunity and charged with the responsibility to be the first to give answers to these questions.
But I am remiss. Not all of my audience are seeking to research digital games for life. I can say with some confidence, however, that all of you care about games enough to get uppity when the uninformed drone on about the societal perils of video games. Of this I am certain.
And so, dear reader, if you have managed to get this far, I applaud your diligence and pose the following:
-Shadow of the Colossus-
Why does this game have depth of meaning, and how does it achieve that depth?
This game has managed to set off all the right alarms in my literary senses. But I have been unable to get a handle on why that is. Perhaps we could talk about it.