Name Games: Analyzing Game Studies

You'd be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever.
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

Espen Aarseth announced, in the introduction to the then-new journal Game Studies, “2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field.” Adding drama, he warned about colonization from outside: “Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again.” In an editorial in the second issue, “The Dungeon and the Ivory Tower,” Aarseth cheekily imagined establishing a Game Studies program at a university as a strategy game, like Sid Meier’s Civilization. In it, he wrote, “your job is to create a multidisciplinary task force” to “gather and balance resources, forge alliances, and battle the aliens.” Aarseth imagined scholarly gaming as a field that required a crack force to defend it, perhaps with a shotgun. Gonzalo Frasca, in coining the word “ludology,” imagined that the field needed its own terminology to define it, not just terms borrowed from other fields.

Today we can use analytics to look back on the founding game and ask how it played out in the journal Game Studies. We wanted to find about the players and see how this battle of ideas played out. Did outsiders colonize the new discipline, as Aarseth warned they might? Or did defenders of Game Studies fight them off? Are there heroes in this game? Are there bad guys? What issues did they fight over? Using text-analysis tools—hermeneutica—we can retroactively survey this emerging field as represented by the journal. Two can play this game.

Gathering Supplies

To study the back story, we scraped all the articles from eleven years of Game Studies. We then stripped out the HTML and created two corpora, A and B. We left the bibliographies in A and stripped them out of B, so the extra data in them wouldn’t skew the analysis. The two corpora were organized distinctively. In A we kept each article as a distinct document. In B we concatenated each year’s worth of articles into a document and gave it the name of the year. The organization of B allowed us to create Word Trend distribution graphs that show changes from year to year.

The high-frequency words suggest the concerns of Game Studies. Not surprisingly, “game” “games,” and “gameplay” show up near the top, along with “rules.” Game action terms (“play,” “playing,” “gaming,” “design”) appear with significant frequency, as do game locations (“space,” “world,” “worlds,” “virtual”). A significant outlier, “narrative,” creeps in; we will say more about that later.

The words that best suggest the “character” of Game Studies include “players,” “player,” “character,” “avatar,” and “Sims.” Taking a hint from the list, we decided to try to figure out who the characters in world of Games Studies are. We ran our corpora through RezoViz, a Voyant tool that visualizes the social network of entities such as people in a corpus. RezoViz uses the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer (NER) tool to automatically identify the names of people, organizations, and places, counting them and counting the links between entities. In this case a link is counted any time two entities occur in the same article of the journal. The more links there are, the greater the number of articles that mention both of those entities and the greater the likelihood there is a connection between them. The data from the NER are then passed to a network visualization tool built into Voyant that explores the links between entities. The full textbase in Voyant allows users to double-click on names to see where they are mentioned and read about them. Distribution graphs also show which articles would be good to read to learn more about someone, but we’ll return to that and instead start with social network visualization.

Interactive visualizations such as RezoViz can easily be over-interpreted. Caution must be taken, as in each of the stages of the process errors creep in. For instance, in the diagram reproduced here as figure 8.2 Espen Aarseth and Aarseth are treated as different people even though they aren’t. However, RezoViz allows data to be corrected; one can edit the results from the Stanford NER and regenerate the visualization. You can also use the usual skin to check entities, but that takes work. Here text analysis is not a short cut but a means of surveying. NER’s quirks don’t mean that one should not use RezoViz; rather, they mean that one should always confirm the hypotheses suggested by the visualization.

Non-Player Characters

Despite the problems with NER, we can clean up the data and use them to generate an initial cast of pioneers, colonizers, designers, and players important to Game Studies.1 The table below lists every character who gets recognized more than four times. Ambiguous names such as Taylor are missing, as they refer to more than one person. There were also some high-frequency names for game characters that we have removed, including Mario and Lara Croft.

Gonzalo Frasca 32   Roland Barthes 7
Espen Aarseth 22 Craig Lindley 7
Henry Jenkins 21 Roger Caillois 7
Jesper Juul 20 Richard Bartle 6
Eric Zimmerman 17 Brody Condon 6
Tony Manninen 16 Dave Ferrucci 6
Janet Murray 16 Laura Mulvey 6
Konrad Lischka 14 Andrew Hargadon 6
Lacan 13 Bernie Drummond 6
Raph Koster 13 Andrew Rollings 6
Ted Friedman 12 Graner Ray 5
Lev Manovich 12 Freud 5
Justine Cassell 11 Habermas 5
Jon Ritman 11 Gibson 5
Johannes Fromme 11 Epstein 5
Cathy Greenblat 10 Lee 5
Chris Crawford 10 Thiagarajan 5
Celia Pearce 10 Eugene Provenzo 5
Brenda Laurel 10 Johan Huizinga 5
Will Wright 10 John Fiske 5
Edward Castronova 9 Graham Goring 5
Kaveri Subrahmanyam 9 Jerome Bruner 5
Greg Costikyan 9 Diane Carr 5
George Landow 9 Gareth Schott 5
Michel de Certeau 9 Bo Walther 5
Brian Sutton-Smith 9 Vladimir Propp 5
Fredric Jameson 9 Marie-Laure Ryan 4
Sherry Turkle 8 Linderoth 4
Annabel Cohen 8 Kinder 4
Aki Järvinen 8    


The High Frequency List reveals the presence of heroes who studied games before if became a recognized field, including Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. Both Huizinga and Caillois, for different reasons, deservedly receive numerous mentions. Early on, Huizinga took play seriously. His brilliant 1938 book Homo Ludens defined gaming as worthy of study.2 Caillois wrote one of the first sustained studies of games:, Les jeux et les hommes (1959), published in English in 1969 as Man, Play, and Games.3 Brian Sutton-Smith’s contribution should also be noted; he has been writing about play, games, and children since the 1970s.4

If Aarseth is right and there is a danger that Game Studies will be colonized from outside, it is helpful to see where outside influences are slouching their way into the field. Some names, including Murray, Barthes, Jameson, and Propp, seem to come from literary studies and narratology, though Jameson is mentioned mainly in an article on realism in games. Others, including Lacan, Bruner, de Certeau, and Freud, appear from psychology, a field that is less an antagonist and more an ally to Game Studies.5

Media Studies theorists don’t appear prominently in the journal Game Studies. One of the few who appear is Lev Manovich, who could be accused of being one of those trying to apply film studies and narrative to new media such as games. If media studies were influential, Marshall McLuhan should appear; however, with the exception of one article (Tyler 2008) that probes games from a McLuhanian perspective, he is rarely mentioned. Tyler warns of the danger of trying to cut games to size to fit our theory.6 Like Aarseth and others, he is conscious of the dangers of befriending giants such as McLuhan.

Game designers should appear prominently. Will Wright, Chris Crawford, Andrew Stern, Andrew Rollings, and Richard Rouse get attention, but mostly because they are designers who write or talk about their work. Crawford, for example, was writing semi-academic books about game design, such as The Art of Computer Game Design (1984), before the field of Game Studies came of age. Wright is famous for designing SimCity and The Sims; Celia Pearce interviewed him for a 2002 Game Studies article titled “Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go.” Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo and other well-known game designers from Japan are absent, probably because most Japanese designers don’t write much and most of what is written about them is in Japanese.

Avatars of the Game

The important characters mentioned in Game Studies are those fighting for the field and those defining it. Who are these avatars of Game Studies? Using RezoViz we can see the pairs of people that most often show up together in Game Studies articles. Three are associated with the journal: Espen Aarseth is the editor in chief; Jesper Juul is an advisory editor; and Janet Murray is on the board of reviewers. We would expect their names to be prominent in the journal, though not necessarily in the articles. The graph tells more than one story, however.

[figure 8.3 near here]

The quest to define the field of Game Studies can likewise be read in this corpus. Searching with Voyant for “friedman,” we learn that Ted Friedman, in “Making Sense of Software” (1995), first raised the alarm about understanding games as narratives. He was critical of the designing of games as “interactive cinema … hamstrung by the demands of traditional narrative.” For Friedman, computer games can offer a rich exchange of feedback and interaction between player and computer.

Aarseth takes up Friedman’s quest to understand games differently. Using fighting words to announce Game Studies as a scholarly field of inquiry, Aarseth turns Friedman’s concerns into founding principles. Appearing as it does in the opening editorial by the journal’s editor in chief, his quest for alternatives is bound to be influential, if only because it shows what he wants the journal to be.

Sure enough, in the first issue three of the authors attack the use of narrative from literary theory and film studies in the understanding of games. Marie-Laure Ryan in “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media” (2001), Jesper Juul in “Games Telling Stories” (2011), and Markku Eskelinen in “The Gaming Situation” (2001) go to battle in different ways to fight off the threat of colonization. Aarseth, as editor in chief, chose his starting team deliberately: both Juul and Ryan not only wrote for the first issue; they also are editors.

One is tempted to see ludology as only a reaction to the dangers of narrative, but that is really only the first level. As one can see from the distribution graph below of the word “narrative”, narrative didn’t get much attention after the initial discussion of it until 2007, when someone dared to defend it in depth. Jan Simons, in a trenchant and closely argued response, presented a new game—Game Theory—as an example of how to understand narrative without losing to it. Simons (2007) set out to systematically show that the ludological arguments “are ideologically motivated rather than theoretically grounded, and don’t hold up against closer scrutiny.” We are tempted to say that the fact that Simons’ article was published in the journal disproves his point, but by then ludology had moved on to other levels.

How do Janet Murray and Henry Jenkins fit into this story of an academic game? Murray’s influence comes by virtue of her 1998 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, a rich work on new media, and because of an exchange over narrative and games such as Tetris. Responding to Murray, Eskelinen and other ludologists see it as absurd to interpret games as stories. In “The Gaming Situation” Eskelinen writes: “Outside academic theory people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama and games. If I throw a ball at you I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.” He criticizes Murray for villainously imposing narrative on games, arguing that “instead of studying the actual game Murray tries to interpret its supposed content, or better yet, project her favourite content on it; consequently we don't learn anything of the features that make Tetris a game.”

It is left to Henry Jenkins to reconcile the ludological heroes and their favorite Murray monster. Simons (2007) draws attention to how Jenkins maps the significant roles that narrative can play in games in a way palatable to the ludologists. Jenkins is an ambiguous character trying to reach across disciplines. Apparently Aarseth and Murray were supposed to settle it all with a boss fight in Ümea, Sweden in 2005 (see Murray 2005), but no one had the heart to fight once in the ring. At a conference in Brock, Ontario Murray and Aarseth were brought together again, and again civility reigned. Aarseth even talked about a narrative theory of games.7

According to Simons (2007), “one explanation for the rivalry between ludology and narratology is that they are siblings.” “Both,” Simons continues, “are firmly rooted in the humanities and therefore tend to consider narratives and games primarily as fictional symbolic artefacts. Narratologists tend to consider novels and fiction films as prototypical examples of narrative, and games studies scholars generally follow Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois by setting games apart from “serious” activities … .”

Ludology and narratology were experiencing the rivalries of siblings. Both are in the traditions of the humanities, fields that consider human arts and expression. A good rivalry needs some agon or competition. Or, as Vico might say, a new institution, like a new field, needs an “other” against which to define itself.8 Perhaps narratology is the influence that has caused a particular group of game scholars the most anxiety or an easy target for them. Perhaps the landscape must be reconfigured in order to reorder the academy and rethink these new and fascinating objects.

By now, most scholars in Game Studies are tired of the narratology/ludology discussion. What stands out about this debate is that it has benefited Game Studies (both the field and the journal.) Both Murray and Aarseth say as much in various places. A bit of controversy draws attention and motivates the people to take on all sorts of roles from combatant to dungeon master.

“If one is to go by the writings of some games studies scholars,” Simons writes (2007), “games studies and narratology are like two players involved in a zero-sum game in which one player gains what the other player loses.”

Perhaps it was imagined as a game all along.

Rules of the Game

If we leave behind the challenge of narrative, what does text analysis of Game Studies tell us about the emergence of the field? What is the study of games becoming? Well, high-frequency words tell us a lot of obvious things—for example, that the study of games is about the activity of playing, gameplay, and players. Likewise it is about the characters, avatars, and social interactions players can explore. The relationship between player and player-character is important (Taylor 2003). Text analysis also tells us that the worlds or spaces that players can play characters in are important, especially large multi-player worlds such as Norrath (Yee 2009).

One word in the list of difference sorted words stands out as especially important to games, and that is the word “rules” (see above). Note the plural. The plural “rules” occurs 909 times in the corpus, the singular “rule” only 116. Why are rules important? One reason stems from how Caillois defines games. He believes there is a continuum of play from ludus (structured games with rules) to paidia (unstructured playfulness). Game Studies, or ludology, is therefore the study of the structured games, and it is rules that give them structure, whether those rules are ones that players abide by or those programmed into a computer. But there is more going on in culture of Game Studies. Try our toys to discover what that might be.

End Game

In this chapter we have traced some aspects of the theme of colonization and its players through the evolving civilization of Game Studies. We could be accused of overemphasizing the drama of Game Studies, but we believe that is what makes Game Studies so vibrant: There are issues at stake, and there is drama among the players. All of it is there in the record, especially at the start of the game. We could be accused of overusing the game trope in this chapter, of letting gaming colonize analysis, but we do not believe text analysis stands outside of interpretation, judging a phenomenon from some objective stance. Text analysis is a way of replaying text; it is a way of re-reading through playful exploration. We could be accused bringing foreign methods—text analysis—to gaming, or of being carpetbaggers, hustling in the new world of games. Although we embrace serious play as part of the scholarly research cycle, we are not playing games here. If anything, this interlude takes seriously that Game Studies is new and sketches an interpretation of the magic circle.

Table 8.1. High-frequency words in the Game Studies archives.

Table 8.2 High-frequency names.

  • 1.  To get this list we created a table of variant names from the corpus, excluding bibliographies. For example, we assigned “Murray” and “Janet H. Murray” to “Janet Murray.” We then ran the process again to get the frequencies and generate data for RezoViz to visualize.
  • 2. The article that gets the most hits for “huizinga” is Rodriguez 2006, which begins “The modern study of play can be traced back to the publication of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s groundbreaking study Homo Ludens....”
  • 3.  Three articles have more than five instances of “caillois” each: Eskelinen 2001, Rodriguez 2006), and Rockwell and Kee 2011.
  • 4. Strangely unimportant to Game Studies is Bernard Suits, a philosopher of sport who wrote The Grasshopper (1978), a charming dialogue that tries to define what a game is. Games don’t play with sports.
  • 5. Surprisingly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who proposed a theory of psychological flow, isn’t prominent, though his name does show up in the corpus.
  • 6. The title of Tyler’s 2008 article “A Procrustean Probe” alludes to one of the ban- dits that Theseus had to dispose of in his Herculean labors. Procrustes was a smith who would fit people to an iron bed by hammering them out or cutting them down.
  • 7. Rockwell’s conference report is available. Aarseth has a video version of a similar talk about the “Narrative Theory of Games”.
  • 8. Janet Murray says something similar in her 2005 paper “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies.”