The School of Gaming, Part 1: Welcome to Ludoland

Ludology or narratology?

These are the two generally accepted approaches to thinking about games. Though not incompatible, these two branches of knowledge nonetheless contend for pre-eminence among video game designer priorities.

The first emphasizes play, the second story. In literary theory, narratology is the study of narrative structure — it looks to amuse, instruct or entertain, and so is designed for us to take in. Ludology is rooted in the Latin word “ludus,” meaning “game.” It is the academic study of games, particularly video games, it is about participation, and it is huge.

Story you watch. Play you do.

Game designers must understand and resolve the tension between these contending forces if they’re to create successful games. The choices they make and the preferences they make manifest in their creations affect gameplay for millions of people the world over.

More than 100 colleges and universities in North America — up from fewer than a dozen five years ago — now offer some form of “video game studies,” ranging from hard-core computer science to prepare students for game-making careers to critiques of games as cultural artifacts. Game studies is largely a multi- and inter-disciplinary field with researchers and academics from a multitude of other areas such as computer science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, arts and literature, media studies, communication and more. Topics range from game philology to the study of virtual economies in “EverQuest.”

USC: The Epicenter of Game Design Studies

If California is Video Game Central in the U.S., the University of Southern California (USC) is Ground Zero for incubating game designer talent.

In January, the Trojans won — for the second year in a row — the top two prizes from GamePro Media and The Princeton Review in the “Top Schools for Video Game Design Study for 2011.” Some of the schools and departments behind this accomplishment include:

  • USC Interactive Media Division & Computer Science (Game Development)
  • USC School of Cinematic Arts
  • USC GamePipe Laboratory
  • USC Andrew and Erna Viterbi School of Engineering (computer science major with a concentration in game development)

Michael Zyda is the director of the USC GamePipe Laboratory and a professor of engineering practice in the USC Department of Computer Science. At USC, he created the BS in Computer Science (Games) and the MS in Computer Science (Game Development) cross-disciplinary degree programs.

“Designers who understand the history of play and the structure and application of play are worth their weight in gold,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Story is also nice, but play is key … that and understanding what people do that makes them play and keep playing.”

Tracy Fullerton is director of the USC Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab and an associate professor.

“There are a number of educational challenges in preparing students to enter the game industry,” she told TechNewsWorld. “These include teaching core skills in procedural literacy and creative expression, but also acknowledging that the industry is now in a time of shifting business models and technology. This can be confusing, but it also provides a lot of opportunity for new talent just entering the workforce.”

As for play vs. story: “Our students practice creating compelling gameplay and engaging stories,” Fullerton said. “They learn to balance story and game, to integrate worlds, characters and play in ways that allow for rich, transmedia experiences.”

Yannis Yortsos is dean of USC’s Viterbi School, and he sees the educational issues as key.

“Teaching collaboration between programmers, designers and artists is an important challenge,” he told TechNewsWorld. “People with these three gifts each have different ways of operating. Getting them all to operate together so they can become good at this is actually the biggest success we have as a program.”

USC alumnus Artem Kovalovs is gameplay programmer at Visceral Games, part of Electronic Arts (EA). Kovalovs is building a 3D video game engine from scratch in C++. He began building the PRIME Engine 3D game framework for PC and XBox 360 with help from other students while at USC. The world’s first 3D browser-based MMO (massively multiplayer online) engine, PRIME provides a complete suite of tools and technology that allows developers to create diverse 3D worlds and have them populated by thousands of players interacting with each other in real time.

The biggest programming challenge facing the industry today, according to Kovalovs, is keeping designers from “getting lost” in the huge code base of any game they’re designing.

“We’re talking about thousands of files, which can become overwhelming,” he told TechNewsWorld. “I tell young designers to get started fast and keep going. Make the work modular so that you’re doing smaller tasks, step by step. That way you don’t get discouraged and think about stopping — always keep going forward.”

UCI Game Lab

Fifty miles to the south sits another booming schoolhouse for video game design studies — the University of California at Irvine (UCI).

Dan Frost is a lecturer in the informatics department of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. Young designers, according to Frost, find the ludology/narratology framework to be “tired, unnecessarily binary and of little use when making design decisions.”

Explained Frost: “I see them taking a more visceral approach. Is it fun? Is it a new twist on an old mechanic? Will it draw me in and keep me playing?”

One of the biggest challenges game designers face is “the tension between depth and breadth,” he said.

“Companies often want to hire people with expertise in a narrow area, and students sometimes view their education through the prism of finding a first job,” Frost told TechNewsWorld. “But universities have an obligation to educate students broadly, both to help them discover where they’ll want to specialize in the future, and to prepare them for the jobs they will have in five, 10 or 15 years”

Multiplayer gaming, virtual worlds, alternative game genres, and games and gender are all specialties of Celia Pearce, a game designer, author, researcher, teacher, curator and artist. She currently is assistant professor of digital media in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, where she also directs the Experimental Game Lab and the Emergent Game Group. She is the author or co-author of numerous papers and book chapters, as well as The Interactive Book and Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds

“It’s a growing academic field, but everyone has to keep in mind that game theory and criticism has to answer to the actual needs of players, developers and researchers,” Pearce said. “To build relationships with game companies, universities have to be perceived as understanding the practical matters and urgent problems involved in making games, and running a company while doing it.”

The School of Gaming, Part 2: Techno-Barbarism or Essence of Humanity?

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