There’s been a burst of scholarly books about videogames in the past two years, and I’ve been going through as many as I can get my hands on. While there are astonishingly bright spots in individual books, the books overall have repeatedly been disappointing. I’ve begun noticing trends of things I hate about academic books about videogames. Here are just a few of the problems I see:
- The books adopt an overly defensive stance, spending far too much time justifying their object of study, instead of, well, studying it. Countless books about videogames begin by quoting industry-wide sales figures. The books invariably draw some comparison to the film industry (as in videogames soon or have already overtaken the film industry in revenue generated). My problem with this defensive posture is, who cares? Would any self-respecting Joyce scholar begin an academic study by mentioning sales figures of Finnigan’s Wake? It doesn’t matter how big or little a part of our culture videogames are; the fact that they exist alone justifies their study.
- Once the books convince themselves that they’re worth taking seriously, they begin the same way, by talking about games and play. I have read countless rehashes of Huizinga and Callois and not once has a book said something new or somehow added something original to the discussion about play. And very few books seem aware of the latest anthropological models of play.
- The books strive to do too much, theoretically-speaking, and they miss their mark. There seems to be a deep urge to force literary and philosophical theoretical models upon videogames. This is not entirely bad, and I agree that critical theory has much to teach us about gaming. But many books are relentless in their pursuit of theory: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Zizek, Badiou–and these might all be in the same book! The more ambitious books don’t just name drop, they also attempt to formulate an all-encompassing, master theoretical model (often composed a la carte from bits and pieces of different–and sometimes opposing–theoretical traditions).
- The cost of all this theory is that the books don’t do what we arguably need most: deep, close readings of individual games. And I don’t just mean “reading” in a literary studies sense, analyzing plot, themes, subtext, etc.; I also mean in a “ludic” sense, that is, attentiveness to the game-like elements of the work (structure, rules, interface, etc.). Many of the books are so hung up on proposing theoretical models that they don’t end up saying anything about videogames. If they do finally get around to examining games themselves, they do it in a breezy manner, saying a few words about GTA III and then moving immediately on to a few sentences about another game. Sustained, coherent, and innovative close readings are hard to come by. (To be fair, this criticism applies to other fields in the humanities, like literary and film studies.)
Of course, I admit that I’m generalizing here. And also (upon rereading what I’ve written) I believe I might sound a bit cranky.
As I’ve said, I have encountered a few eureka moments in these books. But my overall impression leaves me despairing. The field as a whole is spinning its wheels. Maybe I’m expecting too much too quickly? The field is young, after all. Or maybe I just haven’t read the right book yet?