Eric Hayot of the University of Arizona and Edward Wesp of the University of Wisconsin have just published "Reading Game/Text: Everquest, Alienation, and Digital Communities" in Postmodern Culture. The article is an interesting critical ramble (in a good sense of that word) through a number of theoretical debates.
It actually begins in the legal milieu by investigating several cases which deal with the application of First Amendment protections to video games. The analysis here is not really an argument regarding legal doctrine (like, e.g., this), but instead the authors use court opinions on the "expressiveness" of games as a wedge, in effect, to open up the ludology/narratology debate from another angle. The text chosen by the authors for exploration is Everquest; the question, therefore, is whether Everquest is expressive.
As an aside, while I cannot criticize Hayot and Wesp for observing that a real legal debate exists over this issue, I find the notion that games might be categorically "non-expressive" for First Amendment purposes to be completely ridiculous. Contemporary VWs are expressive media and much more. See, e.g., Constance's last post (re MMORPGs as literary practices) or Betsy's post before it (re advertising practices within VWs). There is simply no theoretically defensible argument, in my opinion, that even "lesser" games like Tetris or Pac-Man should lack the First Amendment protections that apply to, e.g., paintings by Jackson Pollock or Joan Miro. While this does not mean that video games should not be subject to legal regulation, I think that it is obvious that representational games must be admitted as an important cultural medium of expression. For evidence that games can, as a category, contain political speech, see Greg Costikyan's presentation on political games. (/rant)
Hayot and Wesp conclude that Everquest is expressive, though their basis for this is a bit surprising. While one might anticipate that, coming from English departments, Hayot and Wesp would approach EQ in terms of representation, genre, and narrative, they instead look for Everquest's expressiveness in the "formal structures that frame player experience," e.g. "the rules of the game," and the "strategies and practices adopted by players as they navigate the game's rules and goals." To me this focus on rules, strategies, and goals seems (at the risk of perpetuating a theoretical bifurcation which seems mainly to bother both sides of the aisle) a bit ludological. And indeed, the authors cite to Jesper Juul's "Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narrative."
The two expressive structural features Hayot and Wesp focus on are "grouping" and "balance." Grouping, for the authors, encompasses many things: e.g., cyberspatial community locations, avatar racial identity, and encouragement of social interaction & cohesion through design. Balance encompasses design efforts that encourage race/class equality. According to the authors, "balance" as a game framework "echoes an idealized version of American, and more broadly capitalist, culture..." (See also Robert Shapiro suggesting this is empirical evidence...)
The next move in the paper is to look at alienation in Everquest. At risk of mischaracterizing a lengthy argument, I think Hayot and Wesp contend that 1) the focus on "balance" combined with the no-skill req'd, time=value nature of the game destroys opportunities for individuated game heroism (see this previous TN post), 2) the persistent temporal structure of EQ alienates the player from either Norrath or real life, and 3) both these alienating influences are counterbalanced by the forces of community. Insofar as that is a correct characterization of what they're saying, I'm not sure I can agree with all the points (esp. with the implication that there is some expressive design intentionality in them). But it's certainly an interesting critical reading of EQ's structure.
Anyway, those are just a few highlights and reactions. The article has much more and is available here.