I was going to post a review of some papers from the Other Players conference (many very interesting ones btw) and then this entry but since a discussion got going over in another thread I think it's worth foregrounding now. One of the big conversation points that came up at the end of the conference was on the relationship of scholarly game studies to design. Eric Zimmerman raised a very good question and concern at the end of the last session which was why are we seeing so many academic studies include some kind of conclusion around "what this means for design" or "how designers can use these findings." I was particularly grateful for Eric's intervention because I've personally been feeling a growing unease with how often scholarly work in games seems to seek a kind of legitimacy by being able to sum up how the research can be used in future game implementations. It's of course not the case that we never want what happens in game studies to have real impact and influence but can we always anticipate what that will be? By making moves into predictive work are we quickly losing ground for good basic research to thrive? Are we beginning to foster a space in which research is primarily legitimated through its usefulness in building future MMOG markets?
There seems to be at least three levels at play here - what I might call critical game studies, critical or innovative design work, and market-driven design work. It seems to me that more and more "speaking to design" or designers is conflated to the third category - addressing market concerns (the need for more eyeballs, more subscribers, bigger games, etc). But interesting design may, in fact, be that which is political, provokes, offends, unsettles, runs counter to mainstream sensibilities, or even challenges commercial orientations and I worry that all too often this point is overlooked. My concerns are, in fact, not primarily directed at designers. While of course there are cases (most?) in which research is dismissed outright if it doesn't have clear, direct utility to building markets I'm less inclined to try and fight that battle. In fact, when I think of designers who approach this most thoughtfully they don't see it as a burden we in academia need carry. As even Richard Bartle notes in his thread post,
"I'm with Eric in that I don't think "games studies" researchers should have to justify themselves to designers. As a designer, it's more useful when they do justify themselves, because it means I don't have to go scouring the literature for interesting stuff - it's already flagged for me. They shouldn't feel obliged to do that, though (especially if it reduces the chance of their getting published in their "home" field)."
Of course, it's always good to think about how to translate one's work out, but I am not a designer in any fashion. I know what is critically important to my subfields and what I find analytically important, but I don't have the orientation or the skills to invoke innovative design. So my question is more at us, the academics. Are there ways we are fetishizing market-focused design which is concerned with that very narrow branch of the commercial MMOG world? Social science in particular has a long history of working in the service of marketing and while I don't want to suggest that's not a fine path for some, I feel like I've been seeing quite a few studies that try and talk to the most limited conception of "design." It's not a clear line of course. A lot of the work we do can certainly be used to retain players or find new demographics for games but I believe we have to retain a space for other kinds of work - often basic, often critical - to exist.
Does this mean I'm saying scholars cannot, should not, pay attention to design? Absolutely not. My training leads me to always want to inquire about structure and in games & virtual worlds that can go to the heart of design. Indeed I often find myself engaged with what I consider critical political issues that touch design spheres. But that can be very different than trying to then place oneself in the role of quick'n'dirty designer or marketer. There are those talented individuals, of course, that can have a foot in each world and do justice to both. This post is in no way meant to incriminate the work done by people in trying to translate their findings out to a broader community or embody it in concrete forms. But scholars increasingly feel significant pressure to legitimize their work only through industrial channels (not to mention those that can only secure funding by doing so). We often exist in cultures and organizations that continually say the only real means of validation can come through industry and usefulness to it. Unfortunately I think much of that argument rests on a very limited understanding of how influence and innovation can occur (for most of us our work will insinuate itself into practice and organizations via our students and not because the current scene takes it to heart). It's this rhetoric, and the future it suggests, I hope we can find pockets of resistance to. At the very least, maybe we can have some fruitful discussions about it along the way.