(1) I’m not going to bother to write a thorough prose response to your recent Escapist article Quibus Lusoribus Bono? Who is Game Studies Good For?, but only numbered objections and comments. Readers, you’ll have to go read Travis’s article before any of these will make sense.

(2) Your article is based on the premise that Douglas Wilson looks down his nose at gamers. Yet, what he actually claims is that the concept of gamers, the notion of a “gamer” as a demographic category is odious. I’ve written about this too. If you want to object to that claim, you need to write another article.

(3) Since you call me out in particular, I’m wondering how you can back up lumping me into the camp of those “pursuing game studies to the detriment of gamer culture,” given my constant, at least sometimes successful attempts to defend and support the medium in the popular and trade press. I tend to get at least a modicum of respect for it among real gamers and real game developers.

(4) You write the following: “By pretending that game studies stands alone as a unified discipline rather than at the nexus of various other fields, scholars of game studies … are institutionalizing … antipathy to the real culture of gaming.” A considerable portion of my first book and my other writings object to the very idea that game studies stands alone. You cite a three-year-old prolegomenon by Aarseth, one meant as a provocation (something he’s known for), and decide to attribute it to all game scholars. You make a “plea to gamers to turn the tables on Aarseth and other doyens of game studies” (myself included). Many (most?) of us already have done work to turn those very tables. Do you actually read any game studies scholarship?

(5) Nobody at my institution teaches a class called “Game Studies 101” or is a “professor of game studies.” Nor is Aaresth for that matter. Nor Henry Jenkins. Nobody at my institution wants “all … their students to be game developers.” In fact, I made a similar objection to the “game studies as savior discipline” issue you attribute to all game scholars (“they want them to distance themselves from gamers and develop serious games, with the “fun” part left out”), in the article I cited above.

(6) What is the point of the citation and mention of my work on “persuasive games?” Is it meant to support your claim that “game studies focus[es] on design?” Did you read my book on the subject? Can you show me the part of it where I claim design to be its primary goal? And if there is a design merit to the book (I think there is in part), so what? How does this relate to Aarseth’s claim that “Game design will have to unite the insights from [various fields]”? Where do I make that claim in my work?

(7) The claim we made in an article you cite, that “You must make games to study them, and you must study games to make them” is indeed provocative. The sense here is this: game scholars ought to understand the fundamental structures and construction of games to study them well; likewise, game developers ought to understand the various critical approaches to games to aid in their creation. You’re a classicist: the former point is like saying that learning scansion and the idiosyncrasies of the Ionic dialect aids in the study of Homer; the latter is akin to arguing that students studying poetry as creative writing can benefit from reading criticism about the poets that inspire them.

(8) The really sad thing about all of this is that fundamentally I think we agree. It’s too bad this is the way you decided to engage the subject.

published May 6, 2008


  1. Roger Travis

    Hi Ian; I think we do agree, fundamentally. I decided to engage the subject this way in part because I thought Wilson’s claims needed to be subjected to a more thoroughgoing critique than they had been, in a venue where the critique might attract the attention of gamers.

    As you’ve pointed out, I took shortcuts in the article because of the nature of the venue, and I think your criticisms are fair. I winced at your saying that I “called you out,” but I suppost that’s fair, too. I hope you take it at least in part as the (badly phrased) compliment it is.

    With best wishes, and thanks for being willing to respond,


  2. Ian Bogost

    Hi Roger, thanks for coming by. I appreciate your comments here, and I’ll agree that being cited in any context is a compliment of sorts.

    I’m certainly open to fiery-but-friendly academic online banter, but I still wonder if you end up really critiquing the Wilson piece at the end of the day? Don’t you think there’s some merit to the claim about a “church of gamers?” I’m earnestly interested in your reply.

  3. Roger Travis

    That’s fair enough, as well, because I didn’t have enough space to go through the article as I would have liked.

    I don’t think any thoughtful gamer could disagree that there are negative characteristics strongly associated with the label “gamer.” My fundamental quarrel with Wilson is that formulations like the “church of gamers” only serve to strengthen the association of negativity with the label. It seems to me really unhelpful that those who should be leading and even teaching gamers profess such negativity about the culture they’ve managed to create in the teeth of a society that shuns them.

    My own inclination, as I wrote about in “Creating the Normal Gamer” last summer, is to broaden the class “gamer” until no one wants to call us a “church” any more.

  4. Chris Lewis

    If this piece was triggered by the Wilson article, I think it would make sense to properly understand what Wilson seemed to be getting at.

    My reading of the piece was that there was a certain core subset under the “gamer” banner that are prone to vociferous Internet tirades. Rather than intelligently engaging at any sort of level, they choose to post negative Amazon reviews or spam stories on Digg. How can we represent gaming as the great, wonderful thing it is, when the most vocal minority are living up to the negative stereotype hook-line-and-sinker?

    Roger, I don’t think you read anything like what I did.

    I don’t know enough about the discipline of “Game Studies” to comment on it in any depth. I do know that most universities are gunning at video games from the Computer Science perspective, and that really leads to a blinkered view of the industry. Making a technically accomplished game is one thing, making it fun is entirely another. We need Games Studies, in some form. And I do believe that Games Studies is very much the sort of place to investigate boundaries like persuasive gaming or serious gaming. That’s not going to come from industry: they don’t have the time, money or inclination. Academia is the only place where this sort of work can really take place, and affect gaming for the better. It isn’t about removing the fun; it’s about testing the possibilities.

  5. Roger Travis

    Chris, I don’t disagree with your assessment of what Wilson’s goal was. But the way he went about that goal in the piece was more or less to equate “gamer” with “fanboi.”

    My quarrel with game studies as I see it being practiced (and I fully admit that I’m doing to game studies what I think Wilson did to gamers, in the service of furthering the discussion) is that it hasn’t to this point interested itself in helping even the “better sort” of gamer figure out how to be a better sort of gamer. Perhaps in the end that’s not game studies’ job, but I thought it was worth wondering about.

    In the end, as I said above in response to Ian, I’m sure I don’t disagree with Wilson’s ideas very much at all. I feel strongly, though, that the presentation of those ideas needed to be challenged specifically as an outgrowth of his discipline.

  6. Chris Lewis

    Roger, thanks for the clarification. At which point, I think I too am with Ian in that “I think we think the same thing, we just expressed it differently.”

    I’m interested in your thoughts on how to be a “better gamer”. What makes a gamer better? Perhaps that’s something for another article rather than a blog comment!

  7. Christian McCrea

    I think the article reflects a sort of ongoing, multifaceted antagonism and tribalism in game writing, academic and otherwise. I’ve been to enough conferences and seen developers and academics struggle to communicate (and after a bit of luck and work, collaborate madly) and walk away a bit embittered. There’s a sense of a obsessive metanarrative to game studies – hence so many game PhDs begin with a literature review chapter.

    I’ve written for the Escapist a few times last year and personally find it useful to straddle divides and challenge my comfortable zone of writing (which is usually baroque and personal) – and I think it has/will made me a better scholar in the process.

    I’d just like to offer my word of support for Ian’s reply, though. There’s now more games scholarship that can be read by one person, and to skate past from a classics department and throw a rock over the fence seems like a missed opportunity.

    But also – not to be provocative – but Ian’s right about the ‘church of gamers’ effect. Lets actually discuss (and study) why internet game culture behaves in the ways it does. I think Douglas’ blog post isn’t far off the mark in many respects.

    I should also say that the film studies mention was odd; film programs changed film production forever, and for the better. Also, there are filmmakers who hate audiences – many. The entire tradition of avant-garde film making is predicated on complicating the relationship.

    Also feeding into my position has been the experience of watching as students develop critical thinking skills and argue differently from semester to semester, watching their game tastes change as they grow the language to talk about interactivity and game culture. They leave the church, as it were, and lose that automatic defensiveness. What they get is the ability to speak for themselves, rather than for an amorphous – and yes, anonymous – victimised gamer culture. In my department, the first students taking on honours projects in our Games and Interactivity degrees are all interested in ethnography and sociology crossover approaches. They want, in other words, to study their surroundings. Its in many ways, an exciting development for scholarship generally.

  8. Roger Travis

    I don’t much like the metaphor of the stone over the wall, but I’m sure that’s what my intrusion must seem like. I’d rather see my stone as being directed against the wall itself, if we have to use stones and walls.

    “Creating the Normal Gamer” was an attempt to answer the question of how to be a better gamer, but I certainly don’t think that answer is the only possible one, and I think scholars studying games may have a lot to offer in this regard, as I think Christian describes. It may seem like a matter of semantics whether they continue to call themselves gamers, but I don’t think it is: I think “gamer” indicates a very strong identity, one which has many positive things along with the negatives.

    Thanks, Chris and Christian, for your replies.

    So, yes there are elements of Douglas’ post that are on the money. But I think linking the negative aspects essentially to the identity “gamer” sets us back a fair ways.

    From my perspective, film studies offered its benefits to film production precisely by not being involved with production, except at the very fringes, and with films that are more like criticism than attempts to reach an audience. I admit that the distinction between attitudes like the one I attribute to Wilson and that of, e.g., Godard, is quite fine, but I think it’s nonetheless important that Godard wasn’t a part of any establishment or seeking any credential, and I think the same is true of other independent directors who profess disdain for their audiences.

  9. Ian Bogost

    I’m slow on the draw due to attending a conference, but I just want to throw out one sentiment that really has nothing to do with the above comments, and that’s that I certainly welcome classicists being interested in game studies (all my degrees are in comparative literature and classics was always a part, as it continues to be — see the “books” and “teaching” sections above). I find the work Travis is trying to do to intersect the two to be interesting. I just have a hard time reconciling that Roger Travis with the one on the Escapist.

  10. Roger Travis

    Something in my most recent reply got a bit garbled–apologies that it ended up rather out of order.

    Clarification on Godard: I meant that at the time when he was doing his “I don’t care what the audience thinks” stuff he wasn’t part of an establishment, and had left to milieu of the [b]Cahiers[/b] behind, which is in itself to me suggets interesting insight into the distinction between film studies and film production, but of course is also a very singular instance.

    I know what you mean, Ian, about being a different writer in that piece. Thanks for being as measured as you’ve been in your response.

  11. Roger Travis

    I just posted the following over at The Escapist forums. I thought it might be worth appending to the discussion here, too. Thanks for letting this conversation happen, Ian.

    I don’t know whether the tone of “Quibus lusoribus bono?” has gained me any traction (I accept that it may actually have lost me traction) over this problem, but in case anyone is still reading this thread I thought it might be good to bring up the “Yahtzee and Nintendo” contre-temps. Douglas Wilson would of course claim this mess as proof of his thesis. I think it’s incredibly important not to do that. Fanboi does not equal gamer.

    So what role could game studies possibly have to play here?

    Talk about it. Don’t say, “That’s what gamers are like. Do you really want to be a gamer? Wouldn’t you rather be something else?”

    Those fanbois who are also part of the set Gamers need to be talked to in a way other than Yahtzee talks to them. I don’t have a problem with Yahtzee, but there should be more. There should be training in civil intellectual discourse. Heck, there should be intellectual discourse about Super Smash Brothers that makes a real effort to engage the game at the level where gamers engage it. I’m not a fighting-game aficionado myself, but to make an analogy to a genre I know well, I really believe game studies scholars should be doing things like posting real critical discourse about the shortcomings of “Two Worlds” as against those of “Oblivion,” rather than leaving it to the flamers who only reinforce the gamer=fanboi equation.

    Sure, a scholar might come out some time next year with a scholarly article about their rhetorical strategies, but while I know that that’s a scholar’s principal job, still, given that we have a living, breathing art form here, I really believe that the privilege of studying games confers an ethical obligation to help raise the real-world, gamer-culture-level discussion of them to new heights.

  12. Roger Travis

    EDIT: I neglected to say in the above that I think there are scholars and thoughtful enthusiasts doing just that. The most prominent, and deservedly so, is Michael Abbott, the Brainy Gamer (he’s already been brought up in this thread, along with the equally deserving Leigh Alexander). It’s my hope that there can be more and more of that. Whether my piece contributed anything to that movement is a matter about which I think reasonable people can disagree.

  13. Ian Bogost

    Roger, thanks for x-posting it here. It’s a little awkward to get these replies in all the places they belong, but I’ll try to do so. Readers may also want to read Greg Costikyan’s response: http://playthisthing.com/games-studies-good-you

    I guess I’m just not sure what you’re looking for. I like Michael Abbott and Leigh Alexander too. But I also like Doug Wilson’s work. Did you read his latest piece about Super Mario Galaxy? Or his other pieces on the public websites?

    And given your invocation of an “ethical obligation to help raise the real-world, gamer-culture-level discussion of them to new heights,” can you explain your criticisms of at least Henry Jenkins, and myself, who regularly write criticism and opinion in the trade and mass media? I write one a month for Gamasutra; one was published since this whole fiasco started, in fact. In hindsight, you may not like that you lumped us all in one fallacious attack, but you did literally ask for reprisal as well. I’m not resting on my laurels, but I think I can say modestly that this characterization is way off. Is it wrong of me to ask you to admit that you got it wrong?

    As for Janet Murray, Espen Aarseth, and Jesper Juul they may not write popular pieces as often but their work is very influential and helps elevate the general status of the medium among all readers. Espen’s work to get the journal Game Studies online and free are important here too. I disagree with a lot of _Hamlet on the Holodeck_, but really, “gamer-hating game studies criticism?” Really? Not all academics need to contribute to the medium’s reception in the same way in order to make a valid contribution.

    Over on the Escapist discussion thread you claimed that another approach wouldn’t have worked better. How about this: an article of the kind you wrongly claim people like Henry and I don’t write but that you didn’t either. One that starts out with a civil, reasoned objection to Wilson’s piece and uses it as a lead-in for an article on, well, any game you like.

    One more thing: Leigh is neither an academic nor an enthusiast (although she’s also that); she’s a games journalist.

  14. Roger Travis

    Ian, I admire the stuff you and Henry Jenkins do for the mass media, but to my mind it doesn’t address the need that I see. The same, for me, is true about Wilson’s Super Mario Galaxy piece (which I enjoyed). Your “Texture” piece (which I also enjoyed), too, goes in the same direction.

    It’s the direction I tried to point out in “Quibus lusoribus bono”: it’s all about design. Wilson is talking about the shoulds and shouldn’ts of storytelling. You’re talking about a history of texture design. It’s what Aarseth was talking about when he constructed the “center” of game studies around design.

    I wasn’t trying to accuse anyone of being mean. I was trying to suggest (yes, in such a way that it would be noticed) that the theoretical construct of game studies may be neglecting significant cultural issues in favor of design issues, and, when game studies scholars turn their eye to gamer culture, doing it from the perspective of a design-oriented discipline that would rather gamers stopped being gamers.

    (Obviously, I called Hamlet on the Holodeck “gamer-hating” specifically to be provocative. From a theoretical point of view, I stand by that judgment, though, not as a judgment on Janet Murray, whose kindness shines through in her preface, but as a judgment on the prescriptive design approach taken by the book.)

    (Final note: I’ll probably be hors de combat for the next few days. I’ve got grading to do.)

    Have a good weekend!

  15. Ian Bogost

    Often criticism engages the aesthetic aspects of media creativity. Objecting to game criticism that discusses design is like objecting to Homer scholarship that discusses meter. The formal properties of a medium, as well as its history, are relevant to its meaning. And besides all that, I’d still point to the back-catalogue of articles you can access from this website.

    … game studies may be neglecting significant cultural issues in favor of design issues, and, when game studies scholars turn their eye to gamer culture, doing it from the perspective of a design-oriented discipline that would rather gamers stopped being gamers.

    I’m afraid I still don’t understand what you’re saying. What are “cultural issues” in your mind? What do you mean with this gamers should be left to be gamers line of thought?

  16. Roger Travis

    I’m not saying that you and Wilson shouldn’t be doing the smart criticism you’re doing. I think your comparison of that criticism to technically-oriented criticism in other fields, like discussion of Greek meter, is a good one.

    I’m saying that from my perspective game studies as a discipline sees that kind of criticism as the right kind, the central kind, and that because the discipline is organized around that kind of criticism it’s inclining itself towards attitudes like Wilson’s.

    I think it’s really telling that you paraphrased my formultation “a design-oriented disicipline that would rather gamers stopped being gamers” as “gamers should be left to be gamers.” That seems to me, though I’m sure I’ll never convince you of this, indicative of the blind-spot I see in game studies as it’s practiced. It’s my contention that by seeing design as the center, game studies is institutionally privileging its own aesthetic judgments as it does design-criticism, and failing to try to describe the cultural operations of gamers’ real aesthetic experiences.

    Again, though, that’s the kind of thing that I know nobody’s going to find convincing. I can hope, though, that it may open new ways to think about the whole issue of what a gamer is, and/or should be.

  17. jccalhoun

    The main problem is that games studies is not any one thing. Some people in game studies want to design games but not me and not any of my friends who study games.

    Games studies is interdisciplinary and that is one of it’s strengths rather than a weakness. I often say that I have no discipline because ever since I got my undergraduate degree in English I’ve been in interdisciplinary departments.

    I find that the people who want to design games are typically asking very different questions than I am asking and if anything, it might be useful if they were to call themselves “game design studies” or something else. i certainly know that if I stumble into a panel at a conference that is primarily on making games I am typically outside of my range of interest and I’m sure that game design folks could say the same when I delivery my own papers (Of course that isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with hearing papers that are outside of my range of interest. That’s often when you stumble on the most interesting ideas).

  18. John McGourty

    Whatever is said here, it boils down to this: Roger, do you let people with Marketing degrees tell you how to teach “Topics in Advanced Latin”? I’m guessing you don’t. Why is acceptable for you to tell Ian how to do his? I’ll give you a hint. It isn’t.

    It’s one thing to question the legitimacy of a professional. It’s another to question the legitimacy of a profession. I really don’t think you want to open that can of worms. While I can see the worth of the classics and how they are basically the basis of all modern thought, I’m thinking it’s probably hard for payroll to justify paying your obviously bloated salary.

  19. Erin Hoffman

    Glad that you provided this well-formed response, Ian. There are a lot of tangled and I think confused arguments in that article, attacking a variety of somewhat related and unrelated issues in gaming… ironically the lack of organization in the article is in itself an argument for an academic approach. But I think the points you disputed were worth disputing, because otherwise the misconceptions remain perpetuated unchallenged, which is unfortunate.

    The cultural issue dividing gamers and academics is interesting but I think ultimately non-serious. I’m a big admirer of Gerard Jones’s cultural work on games, and he mentioned (in an interview I did with him for the Escapist, actually) that the difference between game culture and film culture is that where Hollywood seems to desire and *need* positive regard, game culture seems not to want it — they’d rather be left alone. I thought that was a very interesting distinction between two interrelated industries. It generates a lot of the gamer attitude — most gamers *want* to be avant garde or punk (depending on how high culture you want your flavor). We struggle with this internal cultural attitude (I consider myself a gamer) when it comes to issues that do wind up impacting our bottom line and creativity — censorship, parent fear.

    Then there’s also the standard art-versus-entertainment or social-mission-versus-entertainment argument, which is certainly not limited to games in any way. It happens in literature and virtually every other art form. The game community just seems to think it’s a new idea. But the assumption that because some people want to study games or attempt new things with the interactive medium means that entertainment-focused games are lesser or undesirable is similar to the flare-up recently against women-focused games or casual gaming — there’s a subset of the hardcore that confused market expansion for market change. Serious games represent a significant growth of market, not an allocation of entertainment resources away from hardcore gaming. But neither of these samples is representative of the whole, which seems to be the major mistake in the article.

  20. Roger Travis

    I’m going to be continuing my part of the discussion in the thread at The Escapist. Ian has been nice enough to post his latest response there. (I haven’t looked at the third place my piece is being taken apart; since I wasn’t invited I don’t even want to know what’s happening to me over there.)

    Two things in response to posts above, before I start focussing solely on the Escapist thread (I’ll put answer to Ian up there late today or early tomorrow).

    1. I see the analogy of a marketing professional telling me how to do classics as very unpersuasive. Ian and I work the same job, more or less, and we both (I’m sure) spend time on committees where we’re doing, intramurally, precisely what we’re doing publicly in this discussion. The suggestion that my salary is bloated would have made me laugh if my salary weren’t such a sad little thing.

    2. Erin, to my mind, and I know that those who back Wilson here aren’t going to agree, it was Wilson’s article that made the mistake you cite in your last paragraph.

    Thanks, all–Ian especially–, and I hope to see you at The Escapist!

  21. Henry Lowood

    For the sake of completeness, you all should have a look at the response to Doug’s essay by Rene Patnode; both Doug and Rene are former students, so I am going to keep my mouth shut.


  22. Leigh

    I’m really late to the discussion, but my god, you guys argue civilly. Perhaps the best argument in favor of a problematic “gamer” designation is that this kind of discourse would never occur on the majority of “gamer” sites.

    To expand upon Ian’s kind clarification on my status — I’m indeed about as far from academic as one can get. I slept through high school, dropped out of community college and went to acting conservatory. I have neither the tirelessness nor the attention span, nor the expertise nor probably the raw intelligence to do the kind of work Ian does, not the selflessness to do the kinds of things Erin works on, or anybody else in our very necessary, very constructive academic community.

    And while there are many commendable enthusiasts out there who make a hobby of elevating the discourse on games, I’m not one of ’em; I’m a journo and it’s my job.

    The cynicism of the broadest portion of the audience would preclude me from doing it solely for enthusiasm for very long – something I thought worth pointing out here.

    I know this has been said many times in many different ways (rocks, fences) but I think the problem with Roger’s article simply comes down to the fact that he lacked the experience and the familiarity with the roles each of us play and the objectives we have.

    I do appreciate his objective. Ironically, though, I think there’s quite a bit already, among the game audience, the game academics, the games press, of that gradient Roger would like to see. Maybe it looks black and white from far away, but up close we’ve got quite a diverse landscape, one that continues to become moreso.