Crispy Gamer

DiGRA 2009: When Professors Play

I'm crouched in a shabby hotel room not much bigger than my bathtub at home. And I want to tell you why.

This year, the Digital Games Research Association, or DiGRA, is holding its annual conference at a university nearby. And my first stop on this intellectual tour de force of game braininess is downtown London, and that means cramped, expensive little hotel rooms.

How you respond to the fact that I traveled thousands of miles to attend an academic game conference will tell me a lot about you. Most likely, you fall into category A: "Academic game conference; what is that?" Next most likely, B: "Academic game conference; that sounds dumb." And least likely of all: "Game conference? Interesting. Please tell me more!"

Ah, London: small cramped beds, old buildings and game conferences.

Indulging in the same blind faith that your professors held in the classroom, that you actually were interested in linear algebra or the aesthetic revolt to the Enlightenment embodied in the poems of Coleridge, I am going to forge ahead and give you a glimpse into the secret world of Ph.D.s who play for a living.

But before you get too excited about Dr. Mario waxing eloquent about the level design of the Halo series in FUN 101: Gamerz Roolz, it might be a good idea to remind you that academics who study games remain academics.

Just ask Tanya Krzywinska, professor at Brunel University and the current president of DiGRA:

"Games are now established as a cornerstone of contemporary popular culture. But they must be studied not just as popular culture in a general sense. The cybernetic characteristics of games provide a mode of engagement that differs from other media, thereby providing us with the opportunity to explore issues around perception, economies of pleasure, and form (by which I mean textual characteristics) from new perspectives. Games inform the way we communicate, learn, and problem-solve; and the study of games can tell about a great deal about what we value and the way we make sense of the complexities of the world."

Is this game fun? Someone thinks so. But why?


Games are not interactive movies or interactive books. They are something different. Even weirder, they are different and popular. And the game-studies people want to know why.

So for four days this week, game academics from all over the globe convene at Brunel to present research, argue the results, and generally take videogames seriously. And a glance through the program tells you that there is plenty to talk about. Here's a synopsis of some of the sessions that have caught my eye.

Stefan Johansson asks, "What Makes Online Collectible Card Games Fun to Play?" It seems obvious on the surface, because games like Magic: The Gathering are so popular. But online collectible trading-card games are still a niche business that doesn't appeal to the mass market. Is the answer that you have to have an obsessive/compulsive nerd disorder to enjoy them? Probably not. Let's see what the research says.

Jose Zagal presents, "Ethically Notable Videogames: Moral Dilemmas and Gameplay." The implied ethics of most games is, "More points = good." What ethical conditions might exist in a game? Would they make games better? Morally upright gamers want to know.

This is not real. Or is it?

Constantino Olvia takes seriously the unserious in "Fake Rules, Real Fiction: Professional Wrestling and Videogames." Now that you mention it, this sounds like a Crispy Gamer story. Why do we make fake things out of fake things that pretend to be real things? Ouch, my head just hurt itself.

The panel "Making Sense of Game Aesthetics" will hopefully make sense of game aesthetics -- you know, those questions about truth and beauty that people in the fine-art world talk about. And as time goes on, more folks see the same qualities in videogames.

Celia Pearce makes no effort to avoid controversy with her presentation, "Abusing the Player, and Making Them Like it Too!" Oh yeah, it hurts so good. I hope no spanking is involved.

Mike Molesworth expounds in "'How Many Headshots You've Done, Tanks You've Built, or Countries You've Invaded': Achievement as Discursive Practice in Videogame Play." Translation: Game achievements have become their own game and way for gamers to talk to each other.

Ewan Kirkland turns off the lights and goes boo with "Horror Videogames and the Uncanny." Why are some games scary and some just dumb? Perhaps Kirkland can draw back the veil.

And Mark Eyles offers, "Using an RFID Game to Phenomenologically Test a Theoretical Systemic Model for Describing Ambient Games." Translation: WTF? I have no idea what he is talking about. And that is the best reason of all to attend a game-studies conference or read the abundant research. Someone, somewhere is doing something brand-new and filled with promise.

No, it's not a snappy name. It's the name of an academic organization, duh.

With three international conferences under its belt, and the fourth in full swing, the academic study of videogames seems to be here to stay. Hundreds of game researchers scattered across disciplines as varied as political science, economics, business and the arts dip into the subject of games and why we play them.

So why all the fuss? Why all the fancy words? Will this really help the game makers make better games? In a single question, "Why study games?"

"Because they are a popular and influential contemporary medium, yet we don't fully understand them, or what influence they are exerting on culture, "says Ian Bogost, a researcher and game maker from Georgia Tech and a keynote speaker at the conference.

Thanks Professor. See you in class.

David is in London this week to cover and participate in the Digital Games Research Association conference. He is co-leading the panel: "You Played That? Game Studies Meets Game Criticism," exploring the overlaps between journalistic criticism and academic criticism of games. He will be blogging about the conference during the week, bringing home hard-hitting commentary from the front lines of the Ivory Tower.