On the persistence of game studies dull binary*

narratologyI have been exclusively researching videogame cultures for 15+ years now, first as an undergraduate and graduate student, and since 2010 in various teaching and research and research only positions. I have something like 80+ pieces of writing on games and game cultures.

Something that has been bothering me for years is the persistence of the ludology/narratology debate in shaping scholars experience of entering game studies. Primarily in the sense that this debate is treated as discipline forming and of ongoing, importance.

This is a post for scholars entering game studies, and potentially their mentors. This is a call to not present “both sides” of this argument and maybe not even to point out how shit ludology is because you are contributing to the signalling of its importance. It is not an appropriate pathway for young curious minds entering the scholarship of games. This pathway leads nowhere and is strewn with real scunners.

I was lucky to avoid this pathway myself. When I was in my formative years as a scholar this ‘debate’ was never signalled to me as important by any of my mentors. In 2003 while finishing my undergraduate degree in Dunedin, New Zealand, one senior scholar attended a conference where key dull binary debate scholars were also attending and had basically warned me off because of the intellectual paucity of the so-called debate. In 2004 when I started my PhD in Melbourne, Australia I used ethnography as my framework in order to step away from these rather narrow discussions, and as my work progressed I relied more on scholars like Consalvo, Humphreys, King & Krzywinska, and Taylor to guide my connection with the field of game studies.

While the journal Game Studies was launched, aside from a few articles (which now seem very dated) it was hardly a mouthpiece for ludology. Excellent articles from those early (pre Games and Culture) years which are worth checking out to look at early debates in game studies which are outside of the binary debate framework are this work by Dianne Carr, and this work by Helen W. Kennedy. Both of these scholars published excellent books in 2006 (see reading list below), which along with Aphra Kerr’s 2006 book The Business and Culture of Digital Games capture the formative years of game studies outside of this dull binary.

Luckily for me, the Australian game studies scene generally ignored the debate, exemplified by this collection in Media International Australia in 2004 (issue 110) edited by Chris Chesher and Brigid Costello. Among the inspirational work by Sue Morris and Bernadette Flynn, is Patrick Crogan‘s excellent critique of the ludology position via an analysis of the rather interesting survival horror game The Thing (an interpretation of the John Carpenter film – not that that will help you understand it was a game *wink*).

Patrick Crogan, quite rightly, describes the ludology position as a “theory game.” One that I would add was probably intended to be playful and provocative, but which had unfortunate ‘trollish’ dimensions. Quite important scholars for the development of the study of games in the more traditional humanities and cultural studies, especially Henry Jenkins seemed to take the debate on face value. From this point, in my opinion, the debate began circulating because it drew attention (to game studies, to certain scholars, book publishers, to particular institutions etc.). This attention unwittingly signal-boosted the debate to interested non-experts, and now seems to be the mainstay of university courses and graduate reading lists. ūüė¶

Various elements of the ludology/narrative argument could be considered useful. But the real problem from the very beginning has been the unarticulated anti-theory stance of ludology. My impression is that many women scholars using this debate as an entry point into the field find it hostile to feminist theory specifically. I wasn’t well attuned at the time to recognise that specifically (am not now that great, but thanks for helping me do better), but I recognized an anti-theory vibe that resonated with my experience of “cognitivist film theory” ala David Bordwell (something which I had also been exposed to through my undergraduate as a fancy¬† and problematic¬† “non-theory.”

For me this element of ludology has made it forever unwelcome. Finding out how new colleagues are having their understanding of the field and what is appropriate scholarship deliberately shaped by this through external pressure to read this material further galvanizes my thinking.

So in case you are interested here is an intellectually diverse reading list of early game studies work that engages with narratology/ludology in the fashion it deserves (to be clear this means not at all, critically or disinterestedly). This is work that was massively formative for me and continues to guide my concerns and interests (also if I was North American believe i would also say “passions”).

Hopefully, this lists helps people create relevant reading lists for themselves and their students.¬†I mean if you think the old days of game studies are worth a visit then at least read the good stuff. Remember I’m just one person remembering things badly and there was a lot of other cool stuff going on as well that also wasn’t that same old boringly persistent myth.


Beyond the dull binary: A reading list (dropbox link)

Carr, D., Buckingham, D., Burn, A., & Schott, G. (2006). Computer game: Text, narrative and play. Polity. (reprinted 2014).

Carr, D. (2003). Play Dead: Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Planescape Torment. Game Studies 3 (1).

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans: A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media 4(3).

Crogan, P. (2004). The Game Thing: Ludology and other Theory Games. Media International Australia 110.

Dovey, J & Kennedy, H. W. (2006). Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media. Open Humanities Press.

Flynn, B. (2004). Games as inhabited spaces. Media International Australia 110.

Humphreys, S. (2005). Productive Players: Online Computer Games’ Challenge to Conventional Media Forms. Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies 2(1).

Kennedy, H. W. (2002). Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis. Game Studies 2(2)

Kerr, A. (2006). The Business and Culture of Digital Games: Gamework and Gameplay. Sage.

King, G. & Krzywinska, T. (2006). Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts. IB Tauris.

King, G. & Krzwinska, T (eds.). (2002). ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. Wallflower Press.

Morris, S. (2004). Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Ethnographic Research in an Online Computer Gaming Community. Media International Australia 110.

Taylor, TL (2003). Multiple Pleasures: Women and online gaming. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9(1).


  • This is probably just one of the many binaries that people find dull in GS.




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