Dan Cook and the value of academics

There’s a good piece in Gamasutra by Dan Cook talking about older game designers and the “rebellion” against them that seems to be going on among younger and/or indie designers. I’d recommend you read it.

That said, I was a bit disappointed by the comments. I feel like some people have missed the point. (Or maybe I have?)

It doesn’t seem like Daniel’s trying to argue that the schools are terrible, though he’s certainly making a backhanded case for certification. It seems to be more that there’s a tendency to treat older designers like Cook and Koster as a sort of Authority handing down Law About Games.

Koster’s “Not-A-Game” tendencies aside, that isn’t really how they see things. They’re a generation of tinkerers and wonderers, trying to feel things out, who made some mistakes, had some triumphs, and developed some ideas. They don’t believe that they have all the answers, nor that they’re Authorities to be obeyed or rebelled against…they just have insights and beliefs that come from a long history of design.

(And, as Cook said, the biggest failing of absolutely everybody involved in gaming is that they’re completely blind to history.)

Where I part ways with Cook is on the question of academics. He came across as dismissive. Yes, academic analysis can be dry and jargon-ish. It’s still valuable. Academics worth the name specialize in turning experience, data, and cases into theory. Sure, they may not be game designers, but that isn’t their job, any more than it’s the job of a military historian to strap on a broadsword and go carve up some knights.

I know I keep on banging on about the guy, but that’s one of the reasons I find Grant Tavinor’s work interesting. Yes, he’s an academic. Very much so. But because he’s an academic, his work does a good and careful job developing theories that seem to elude off-the-cuff designers. The reason why his definition of video games is so good…

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

…is because he employed the theory of disjunctive definitions (where two things can be sufficient yet neither are necessary) in order to solve the knotty problem of whether games need to be systems-focused.

This definition doesn’t come from vacuum. It’s the culmination of a long and fairly dry essay about the nature of video games. It’s an end-point of a lot of careful, slow thought, instead of some sort of blinding insight. That’s why it works so well. Sometimes you have to take it slow and work it out.

Yes, it has jargon. Yes, it’s kinda tough going. Yes, the linked essay and Tavinor’s excellent book Art of Videogames can reveal the sort of reservations and cautions that you see in all good academic analysis. And, yes, reading Tadhg Kelly bang on in bite-sized bloggy chunks about characters-as-dolls and about how the Zinesters don’t get how tabletop proves that players only really care about systems is a lot easier.

But it’s  worth it.

Academics have their place. And, if the job’s done right, they don’t pretend to have all the answers. There’s room for rebels and discontent; in fact, the best academic writers and thinkers practically BEG for rebellion and discontent. They practically feed off it. Something to think about.

(Oh…and they love talking about history.)

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