[Edit: apparently my pings freaked out, so apologies to anyone I linked to that suddenly found several trackback entries. Not quite sure what happened there. Please delete all but one. Thanks. JR]

I’ve been following with great interest the posts and comments surrounding the recent Princeton conference on games. The conference and ensuing discussion reinforced my regret; it sounds like it would have been a wonderful event to attend. The conference title – Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism – highlight three things very close to my academic heart. Blogosphere conversation sparked by the meeting has ranged from reports (GTA, Jerz, buzzcut), responses to the blog reports (Ludology.org, Jesper Juul), and discussion about “getting along in game studies” (Watercooler Games, and Nick Montfort’s Combat vs. Air-Sea Battle at GTA).

If anything has been reinforced by reading through the friendly arguments and academic discourse this past week or so, it is that – to paraphrase Stanley Fish – “being interdisciplinary is hard” (props really should go to Matt K., rather than Fish, for giving me this handy segue, delivered during his lectures for Word and Image. The proper citation, if interested, is: Fish, Stanley. “Being Interdisciplinary Is So Hard To Do.” Professions 89. NY: MLA, 1989. 15-22.). The central difficulty of speaking outside of one’s own discipline is in part what seems to foster and even bolster our need for things such as a “common vocabulary” and our fears about the colonization of departments, fields (narratology v. ludology, etc.), and so forth.

The critical discussions of games, which draw on a variety of (and occasionally contrasting) traditions, media, and disciplines, unsurprisingly creates in some the sense (sometimes false, other times not) of contention. After all, there is a long history of inter-arts competition. Critically, one early example is Lessing’s Laocoon (1772), which explored the relationship of poetry and painting; creatively, we can see examples of competition in artistic representation as early as Homer’s ekphrastic description of Achilles’ shield (a verbal representation of a visual representation) or later in the familiar poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats (see CJ’s post on Conventions of Ekphrasis, especially the commentary on ‘paragone competition’; also see W.J.T. Mitchell, esp. Picture Theory, for discussion along these lines).

Goals such as common vocabularies to account for competing interdisciplinary perspectives are admirable but are ultimately chimeras. Certainly we will achieve some common understanding as the field progresses, but it always a responsibility of the writer-researcher to situate their assertions with the appropriate context, peppering articles liberally with clear articulations of key terms and references to supporting documents. Games are objects that draw from a variety of antecedents, which may or may not include (depending on the game) visual art, literature, rhetoric, textual studies, narrative, culture, social science, media studies, computer programming, game theory, film, and any number of fields, disciplines, theories, etc. that I certainly forgot (I’m sure someone will remind me). Expectation of common understanding is not only unrealistic, but ultimately detrimental to the field; of course, this point was made more forcefully by Nick in his simple contrast of Combat and Air-Sea Battle.

In that spirit, I’d like offer some thoughts about the use of form, especially in the context of form from a literary perspective, and how it is useful in the context of game studies. In his reaction to the Princeton conference, Jesper Juul rightly points to the history of structuralism as one possible concern when discussing aesthetic objects in terms of “rules, structure, or definitions”:

This is the history that makes a lot of people automatically assume that if anybody talks about rules, structure, or definitions, they must be ignoring the experiences of the user. But the problem is that while this to a large extent is true with literature or film – if you reduce a novel to a semiotic square, almost everything interesting is lost – it is completely wrong when it comes to games.

Yet theories of structuralism and attention to form are not the same thing. Formal analysis may be a component of structuralist thought (certain Russian formalism was an influence), but the study of form is not bound to structuralism. A semiotic square is an interpretative tool – a device that has also been criticized for its lack of attention to cultural contexts as well as potential bias on the part of the user. Using a semiotic square (a critic’s tool) is entirely different than examining the formal attributes of a work. Formal choices are sometimes (but not always) at least in part decisions made in the creative process. We should distinguish between noting that a poem is a sonnet (the form is a creative choice) and using a semiotic square to (as Jameson does) provide a reading of Dicken’s Hard Times (a critical model).

Obviously, issues of form and theory are not so easily reduced to questions of creative forethought and critical afterthought, but it is an inaccurate assertion that attention to form necessarily reduces novels (or any other literary text or object of critical study) to a point where “everything interesting is lost” and necessarily ignores the experience of the user. Formal analysis is a long standing component of careful literary interpretation. Attention to poetic form helps shape a clearer understanding of a most common reading; a sonnet, for example, leaves clear markers as to how a reader would *most likely* encounter the text. Departures from the norms of the form call attention to the variants and encourage close scrutiny. The use of a particular form also roots the text within a social, literary, and historical context. This kind of thing is the bread and butter methodology of any number of literature sub-fields and especially of textual studies.

Ultimately, I would assert that texts are – at least in part – rule based systems. This is not to say that all texts share the same rules or that all aesthetic objects might be accounted by a single semiotic system; both assertions would also be inaccurate (see Nelson Goodman’s Language of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols as an example of a worthy, yet unsuccessful attempt towards such a system). Reading a codex is an operation in perhaps one of the most commonplace and commonly accepted rule-based systems in place today. Books are literary machines, a technology of reading developed and made familiar over hundreds of years. Claims that books are without rules as just as suspect as the claims that computers and their texts are immaterial. Matt Kirschenbaum’s recent talk at the Library of Congress, where he dramatically drew upon both textual studies and advanced forensics, was a fascinating rebuttal to such assertions. Textual studies, with its history of exploring variant readings and texts, reception histories, detailing formal attributes of works, and its theories of materiality and contextual history, is just one of many other critical antecedents to the project of a formal analysis for games (and, though I didn’t get a chance to read it when it was online, Nick M.’s conference paper seems to be very much in this vein).

Film theory also relies heavily on the analysis of form in order to assert viewer experience and interpretation, including attention to particular shots (establishing, long, close-up, etc.), montage (relationship between shots), motion, angle, lighting, etc. Attention to such form only enhances, rather than detracts from, an interpretation of a film. Understanding film form is a key component to our collective visual literacy, which is in turn one component (again, of many) that informs the design of some games. Certainly, these formal terms are heavily invested with theoretical assertions; it should be a tacit understanding that formal terms are neither static nor without cultural and historical weight.

Acknowledging indebtedness to critical roots is not the same as being bound to them (assuming theories have boundaries anyway). And part of the value in exploring the relationships between (so-called) “old” and “new” media rests in what may be one of the most powerful arguments for our discipline – instead of applying old theories to new, the study of the “new” might just reveal some misconceptions, corrections, or interpretations of the “old.”


4 Responses to Notes on Form(al) Theory for Games

  1. nick says:

    Jason, thanks for distinguishing semiotic squares from awareness of the sonnet form – this, and that formalism is compatible with concern for reader/player experience, did need to be said. I couldn’t find your email right off, but drop me a line if you like and I’ll email you my Combat paper. Sorry again for having to pull it, but it’s the price when I ask for reviewers’ time and opinions.

  2. Jason says:

    Thanks Nick. No apologies necessary, of course; I’ll email you shortly (once my daughter decides that it is indeed nap time).

  3. Matt K. says:

    Good stuff, Jason. I’d like to go ahead and link in this thread from my class blog:


  4. Jason says:

    Thanks Matt; of course, I always welcome trackbacks and continued discussion – link away.

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