Quo Vadis German Game Studies? A Commentary
Game studies have started as an international endeavour; a rich field bringing together scholars from all over the world, where national borders hardly played any role. In this spirit, the first international peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the study of computer games was inaugurated in 2003 (gamestudies.org) and the first conference of the Digital Games Research Association began. When I joined the DiGRA community almost 13 years ago as a doctoral student, I was confronted with fellows and colleagues of different nationalities dispersed across diverse institutes, most conducting their research in English. A national perspective was hardly ever mentioned, not even at evening conference receptions. It simply did not seem to matter. After all, a global cultural and medial phenomenon of video games lent itself easily to a global scholarship. With the establishment of the field, however, in the past few years local perspectives have been rising in significance. The local DiGRA chapters have found fertile ground in many countries: Italy (digraitalia.org), UK (bdigra.org.uk), the Nordic countries (nordic-digra.org), just to mention a few.
The so-called German speaking game studies reflect a wider trend then. I wonder whether it is the ungraspable manifoldness of disciplinary perspectives and methods in game studies that has pushed us into the comfort zones of national borders. Or perhaps, this preoccupation with self-referential questions is a sign of striving for disciplinary independence? So, what is German about German game studies, to paraphrase Claus Pias (2016)? And is there something as the German Sonderweg (“separate path”) to ask with Winthrop-Young (2009)? I will start this short commentary by looking for the disciplinary heart of German gameness, going on a short retrospective journey, after which I want to extend to the future, ending with a vision (or wishful thinking) of game studies as a standalone discipline of Spielwissenschaften.
In the German-speaking region, the first few works, demonstrating the scholarly potential behind video game analysis, stemmed predominantly from media theory and cultural studies. In 1999, Natasha Adamowsky published a monograph Spielfiguren in virtuellen Welten. In the following year, two doctoral students presented their theses at the Media Faculty of Bauhaus-University in Weimar: Britta Neitzel looked at narrative aspects of computer games and Claus Pias proposed a media historical analysis of the computer game form (Computer Spiel Welten published by Diaphanes in German in 2002 and in 2017 translated to English). Shortly after, Markus Rautzenberg’s Spiegelwelt. Elemente einer Aisthetik des Bildschirmspiels (2002) saw daylight. When Espen Aarseth was proclaiming year one of computer game studies (2003), Britta Neitzel and Rolf F. Nohr, were establishing a working group AG Games within the Society for Media Studies (Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaf, GfM). The annual meetings of GfM had become the first conference platform for Game Studies long before other event formats emerged, such as Clash of Realities in Cologne or FROG. Future and Reality of Gaming in Vienna. In 2008, Digital Games Research Center DIGAREC (Zentrum für Computerspielforschung) was founded at the University of Potsdam. It is an excellent example of a long-term initiative and network, currently curated and coordinated by Sebastian Möring. Although those few milestones by far do not exhaust all early scholarly endeavors, they allow me to observe an interesting pattern. What was about to take the shape of German game studies, emerged as a series of interconnected initiatives by a generation of back then early career scholars of media theory, cultural studies and philosophy. This tradition remains lively until today. And it is the affinity between Spielwissenschaft and Medienwissenschaft, which in my understanding, defines and entrenches the place of game studies within the German academic landscape.
The Story Continues
The second decade of game studies in the German-speaking region brought with it a staggering number of individual publications, first academic journals such as PAIDIA, many foundational collected volumes, and didactic programs devoted exclusively to digital games.1 With time, video games have found place in diverse art schools, also leaving a footprint in already established university institutes in the form of extracurricular lecture series, game labs and other student-led initiatives. Out of this momentum emerged, amongst others, Cologne Game Lab, an Institute for Games Development and Research founded in 2010 by Gundolf S. Freyermuth and Björn Bartholdy at TH Köln. CGL is an institution with an artistic/academic higher education philosophy (künstlerisch-wissenschaftliche Ausbildung). Currently, at CGL students from more than 40 countries not only learn the trade of designing games, but also study them academically. Game studies are not peripheral at CGL; they co-exist alongside design, art and programming, accompanying the students throughout their entire BA and MA education.
The platform for the scientific and artistic study of games has grown exponentially. We are, it seems, at the cusp of the most prolific time for game studies. As Gundolf S. Freyermuth notices, the institutional establishment of games has already taken place, and it is high time to ask ourselves about the stakes of the “academization” (2015, 240). Theory had moved games from trade to art. Game studies then, just like film theory in the early days of its institutionalization, have become an inseparable component of the entire video game landscape, reaching far beyond academic borders. We could boldly say that they are a force, which in the long run has the power to change the face of games and game design.
The Future of Spielwissenschaft?
In the last two decades, the study of games has grown from individual monographies and single works to a vibrant community with its own theoretical interests, platforms to share knowledge, and strategic agendas. At the same time, game studies still cannot be regarded as a formal discipline. It remains a prolific thematic field anchored within media and cultural studies. Perhaps, the celebration of 10 years of PAIDIA is the right moment to bring back the question of disciplinary independence. Do we need an official discipline of Spielwissenschaft, recognized as such by the major funding bodies such as the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG)? Should we look into establishing our own association, for instance Gesellschaft für Spielwissenschaft, GfS? And perhaps, the most ambitious question of all, is there place in the German-speaking academia for institutes and study programs devoted to the theoretical study of play and games?
Some of those questions have been vehemently discussed in the last years, for instance within the framework of Gamescamp in Berlin (#gcberlin ). In 2019, Stefan Höltgen hosted an event at the media archeological lab at Humboldt Uni Berlin, bringing together game scholars from across Germany to ponder about the future of the field. That very same year, a similar meeting was initiated by Markus Rautzenberg at the Folkwang University of the Arts. Having met to lay conceptual foundations for an imagined Institute of Game Studies (Institut für Spielwissenschaft), we have departed with little concrete plans at our hands and lots of widely differing opinions. Some of us were convinced that the time has come to think about establishing a formal institute for a new discipline; others were more eager to see game studies as a meandering field, escaping rigid structures, which confine creativity.
I belong to the first group, who believes that game studies, just like Filmwissenschaft, are in need of their own study programs and institutes. In other words, video games as a fully-fledged medium, need its own discipline. My vision (or wish) extends to building a cross-disciplinary program applying methods from humanities to understand play and games in the digital era. Ideally, it would offer courses at undergraduate and graduate levels in cooperation with selected disciplines, such as media and cultural studies, anthropology, philology or philosophy to explore different aspects of games and play and give the students theoretical tools to learn how to do so. My humanities-driven Spielwissenschaft would stand on three main pillars:
- Play Cultures (Ethnoludology):
- Play Theory (Game Theory and Analysis)
- Play Systems (Game Design Theory or Systemic Ludology)
The first pillar “Play Cultures” would focus on the study of play in cultural contexts. It would extend to the contemporary (synchronic) and historical (diachronic) understanding of play across a variety of cultures and timeframes. The main disciplines to cooperate with for an in-depth methodological and theoretical repertoire would be cultural anthropology and cultural studies. The second pillar “Play Theory” would focus on a media theoretical and philological analysis of play and games. It would teach the foundations of media theory, media aesthetic, as well as the art of interpretation and narration. The third pillar “Play Systems” would reach out to what we can call science and technology of play, looking at rules of play, critical design and media production. It would profit from a cooperation with computer science, design and visual arts.
Why is it the humanities that I see as the main driver of Spielwissenschaft? Video games have become a mass entertainment phenomenon, whose implications go far beyond sale figures, player preferences or developers’ intentions. They are a mirror of its time, reflecting aesthetic, narrative, cultural and ethical values at play. The humanities have a long history of dealing with the complexity of newly emerging media, whether it is literature, photography, film or the digital electronic computer. A humanities-led (not humanities-exclusive) Spielwissenschaft would continue the tradition of other “humanities sciences”, such as Literaturwissenschaft, Filmwissenschaft, Kulturwissenschaft or Medienwissenschaft.
The above sketch remains within the realm of utopias, but I hope it gives us something tangible to hold on to, to start off a critical reflection and a debate (again) on where we are coming from, where we are and where we want to head towards. We need to be ready when the time for the first game studies institute comes. Who knows, perhaps, within the next ten years on the virtual pages of PAIDIA, we will be lucky enough to read academic work of the first generation of “homegrown” game studies scholars.
Adamowsky, Natasha. 1999. Spielfiguren in virtuellen Welten. Frankfurt am Mein: Campus.
Bartholdy, Björn, Breitlauch, Linda, Czauderna, Andre and Freyermuth, S. Gundolf. 2019. Games studieren – was, wie, wo? Staatliche Studienangebote im Bereich digitaler Spiele. Bielefeld: transcript.
Beil, Benjamin. 2013. Game Studies – eine Einführung. Berlin: LIT Verlag.
Feige, Daniel, Ostritsch, Sebastian and Rautzenberg, Markus. 2018. Philosophie des Computerspiels. Theorie – Praxis – Ästhetik. Berlin: Springer.
Freyermuth, S. Gundolf. 2015. Games. Game Design. Game Studies. Eine Einführung. Bielefeld: transcript.
Fuchs, Mathias, Fizek, Sonia, Schrappe, Niklas and Ruffino, Paolo. 2014. Rethinking Gamification. Lüneburg: meson press.
Neitzel, Britta. 2002. Gespielte Geschichten. Struktur- und prozessanalytische Untersuchungen der Narrativität. Dissertation. Bauhaus-Universität Weimer.
Pias, Claus. 2002/2017. Computer Spiel Welten/Computer Game Worlds. Berlin: Diaphanes.
Pias, C. 2016. What’s German about German Media Theory?” In Media Transatlantic: Developments in Media and Communication Studies between North American and German-speaking Europe. Springer, 15-27.
Rautzenberg, Markus. 2002. Spiegelwelt. Elemente einer Aisthetik des Bildschirmspiels. Berlin: Logos.
Winthrop-Young, F. 2009. “Von gelobten und verfluchtend Medialändern. Kanadischer Gesprächvorschlag zu einem deutschem Theoriephänomen.” (trans. Of Media Countries Hailed and Damned). Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaft, 2, 113-152.
Zimmermann, Olaf, Falk, Felix. 2020. Handbuch Gameskultur. Über die Kulturwelten von Games. Deutscher Kulturrat.
Nilson, Johann Esaias : Das Bretspiel . 1765. National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
- The following selected collected volumes (by far not exhausting the list) represent the scholarly and didactic richness of German-speaking game studies (in chronological order): Game Studies – eine Einführung (Beil 2013), Rethinking Gamification (Fuchs, Fizek, Schrappe, Ruffino 2014) Games. Game Design. Game Studies. Eine Einführung (Freyermuth 2015), Philosophie des Computerspiels. Theorie – Praxis – Ästhetik (Feige, Ostritsch, Rautzenberg 2018), Games studieren – was, wie, wo? Staatliche Studienangebote im Bereich digitaler Spiele (Bartholdy, Breitlauch, Czauderna, Freyermuth 2019), Handbuch Gameskultur. Über die Kulturwelten von Games (Zimmermann, Falk 2020).