The Academic Game(r)

28 Feb

This week, Gamasutra ran a blog post about gaming and academia by Rami Ismail. In it, Ismail talks about an encounter he had with an academic at IndieCade East:

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency….

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions – which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

Ismail says that “this rubbed me the wrong way,” because he had spent a lot of time trying to distill the term “player agency” for his audience and the academic in question had not recognized that clearly he understood the concept. While I would humbly suggest that this particular question could have been solved by Ismail beginning with the phrase, “Developers like to use the term ‘player agency,’ which is a really complex idea that I’m going to attempt to describe as we go,” that’s not really the point of his piece. (Although I’m a big fan of both using and explaining terms like “player agency.”)

The point is that there are two essential schools of thought, Ismail says, about education and game development. One of them – held by Ismail – is that you don’t need formal education to design games. The other – obviously held by the academic – is that education is essential. I’m going to say that educationis vital, but that the means of acquiring that education can be either academic or practical. Ismail gained his education practically – as he says, by creating games and struggling in the industry:

I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

This is a completely valid education, as far as I’m concerned. There’s absolutely no reason why Ismail’s education is any less valid than someone who has a degree in game design. However, I think that practically educated designers like Ismail are going to become less and less common, just as practically educated filmmakers, novelists, and playwrights are far less common than they used to be – now, they are all expected to have college degrees, where decades ago, they weren’t.So while a degree in game design might now be more rare than not, and while developers might in fact still sneer a bit at someone with such a degree, within ten or twenty years, developers will be expected to hold them. (Side note – I’m not saying this is the way it should be, but that this is the way it almost certainly will be.)

But one thing about Ismail’s point doesn’t account for is that not all participants in the industry are developers, and that there is validity to academic training for those of us who aren’t creators or publishers or programmers. Those of us who are academic gamers – the theorists, the critics, the analysts. And that leads me to the flip side of Ismail’s argument – which is to say that academics shouldn’t be discounted from contributing to the evolution of the industry, either. Ismail focuses only on academics who are developers – those who make “serious games,” social games, and experimental games.

But just as theory and criticism have come to shape the way films and literature are made, so, too, will they influence and shape even triple-A game titles… and some of them already are. Bioware was founded by academics whose primary field was not gaming. Academia has a lot to offer the games industry, if the industry can stop thinking in dichotomous terms of “us” the developers who make the games and innovate, and “them” the academics who tell us that we’re uneducated. But the academics also need to stop acting with the sense that their extensive years of higher education somehow make them better than “uneducated” developers who have similar years of practical experience in the industry. In short, we need to learn from and with each other instead of each side assuming that the other doesn’t “understand” and is therefore inferior.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same core problem that the gaming community is finding in the gender divide: us versus them. Perhaps this is more of a tendency in the gaming community because games are by their nature competitive, and an us-versus-them mentality is a part of that competition. Perhaps it is because the industry has long been dominated by a homogeneous population of young, white males. Whatever the reason, though, the industry as a whole will benefit (as in genetics) from heterogeneity, and all sides need to learn to play nicely with one another.