Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Ludology

Recently I've been working on my final project for one of my grad school classes this semester. I'm putting together a 'pathfinder', essentially a listing of all materials available (from the San Jose King library) on a given subject. I chose videogames (of course) as my subject. More specifically I chose ludology, those materials pertaining to the academic study of videogames. In my search for relevant sources I've come across many interesting materials. What's fascinating to me about these materials is not just that games are being examined in a critical light, but that the discussion is so new that reading about it makes me feel that I'm taking part in its creation. It's not like most stuff you read in school where the theories being presented are based on well established ideas, and as you're reading it you get the feeling that you're just an observer, barely skimming the surface of what hundreds of academics have thoroughly plowed. This stuff is new, raw, fresh. Just being able to find something on the topic feels like a success.

It's like the boundaries haven't even been set yet. As I read this stuff I get the feeling like this is a new frontier, it's just starting to get mapped out, and that if I'm clever enough I can claim a piece of this land and contribute to the greater whole.

Take for example the name of this new territory. So far there isn't even a real word for it. There seems to be some mass developing behind the word 'ludology', which I've taken and ran with as the name of this blog. Ludology is based on the Latin word 'ludus', meaning either 'sport', 'school', or 'game'. But what does this 'study of games' even mean? It's not the study of the actual coding and creation of these games, though parts of that creation are definitely open to discussion within ludology. Is it about the story or narrative of games? Well, it's not really that either, though narrative lends itself more easily to discussion. Maybe it's about the culture of gaming, i.e. game console wars and fanboys. Hmm, not sure. Thinking about it, while ludology isn't necessarily any one of those things, I think it might be all of those things, but with something more. It's like the old 'sum of the parts are greater than the whole'. Ludology is an attempt to discuss all of these aspects simultaneously while attempting to derive some greater meaning from the whole. It wants to answer the question, 'so what's the meaning behind all of this?' What insights into the human condition do these games give us?

Just like with cinema a century ago, when its moving pictures allowed us to take a look at ourselves away from the context of the action happening immediately before us as it had for centuries upon the stage, asking ourselves how we would react if confronted with the situations those characters face up on the screen, and creating tension, drama, and intrigue though camera angles, dramatic cuts, lighting, and music, videogames not only allow us to examine how we would react when we are faced with those same situations and cinematic devices, but asks us to go a step further and actually physically interact and carry out the actions of those characters.

How does a player react in the game Bioshock when he is given the decision to save or kill the genetically altered, deformed girls known as 'little sisters'? How does the player feel in Metal Gear Solid 3, when near the end of the game, after a lengthy cinematic cutscene in which the main character's mother/mentor figure asks for you to mercy kill her, the game gives control back to the player and demands that they physically press the controller button to carry out the action? These are just some of the questions that ludology asks.

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