Paper #5: Objects of Study

Because Game Studies is both new and interdisciplinary, with scholars from many fields each focusing on the elements that relate to their own specialty, there are many objects of study, ranging from the technical, programming aspects and gameplay to the impact of the art and visuals, the spoken and written words, and the subculture (and economy) that has grown up around gaming. It is an exciting field to be working in, and in many instances the interdisciplinary nature allows scholars to go outside their comfort zone, to study things that are not exactly in their wheelhouse, but can be approached in a similar manner – or those that are familiar, but can be studying in a different way. Since the direction I am coming at this field is through English Studies, I will look at two of the most common approaches to study: the way narratives are constructed and the pedagogical underpinnings of using games in education

Creation and Communication of Narrative

One area of focus is the game’s narrative, or story. Of course, part of the reason games are so effective at storytelling is that they can use written and spoken text, music and sound, moving and still images and, of course, gameplay and mechanics in service of the story. Because the story is interactive, the player becomes more invested in and engaged with the story than they would as a strictly passive consumer of print or video media. Of course, different games will apply each of these elements in different ways.

One example of a game that benefits from both literary and rhetorical analysis techniques from an English Studies perspective is the Game of Thrones game

Screenshot - Telltale Games' Game of Thrones Dialogue Choices
Screenshot – Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones Dialogue Choices

by Telltale Games. As the following video shows, the designers use the full range of cinematic tools at their disposal to tell the story, and the inclusion of voice acting from several of the TV adaptation’s lead actors increases the sense of immersion. In addition, the player has to make both dialogue and action choices along the way, as well as there being a limited skill element, where players occasionally have to rapidly touch a particular spot on the screen (to punch someone in the face, for example, or put out a fire), which adds a sense of urgency. All of these elements are ripe for exploration by scholars, and allow the application of multiple approaches and theoretical backgrounds.

Games in Education
The impact of video games on education has received a great deal of attention. As previously stated, some people have focused on superficial “gamification” tactics, but game scholars have delved much more deeply into how people learn, and how games can be both informational texts and teaching tools, either

Onscreen text from Civilization V's "Civilopedia"
Onscreen text from Civilization V’s “Civilopedia”

analyzing existing games as objects of study (for example, Civilization to teach history, World of Warcraft to teach economics, etc. or “literary games” as studied by Astrid Ensslin), or developing new games. While the latter is certainly an area of interest for me, it strays into more interdisciplinary territory rather thanbeing more rooted in English Studies.  In defining the OoS for Education, the focus is on what skills are applicable in an academic setting that are “taught” through the medium of the game, and the means by which the game encourages mastery of those skills.


In the case of games in English education, much of what is studied relates to any form of written text accompanying the game, whether it is on screen conversations among players, “help” text, in-game signage and interface labeling, or accompanying texts (written gameplay documentation, player or company-created strategy guides, etc.). These texts can be studied to determine what content is being conveyed, what a player’s mastery of that content is, and how the delivery method – the game itself, through storyline, mechanics, graphics, etc. – contribute to the learning process. Kevin Moberly’s essay, “Composition, Computer Games, and the Absence of Writing” addresses the way that real time audio chat eventually eclipsed written chat formats in online games like Warcraft, while also addressing the rhetoric and communication going on through non-written means, through the way the player crafts an identity for their character and the choices that they make. Likewise, Alexander’s “Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom” explores the paratexts that evolve alongside games, including strategy guides, wikis, message boards, and other peripheral game-related texts.

Because the field of Game Studies is so heavily dependent on technology, as new tools and platforms are developed, so too will now objects of study present themselves. Virtual Reality gaming is becoming more widespread and affordable to consumers, and the success of Pokemon Go! has renewed interest in Augmented Reality Gaming. The history of the field has largely responded to the development of new delivery platforms and new styles of gaming (strategy, FPS, story-based, hidden-object based) as their popularity ebbs and flows, and so the field will have to continue to evolve just as rapidly.

Additional Resources:
Virtual Reality Gaming
CNBC provides a quick overview of virtual reality gaming.

Augmented Reality Gaming
Though best known for her book Reality is Broken  and its explorations of the potential for gamification across education and many other industries, Jane McGonigal also holds a PhD in Performance Studies from UC Berkley. Her “I Love Bees” transmedia narrative showed the potential for gaming as promotion, serious gaming, and games that go out into the world beyond the computer.

McGonigal’s TED Talk on using gaming to change the world.

While gamification is beyond the scope of this essay, it is an important concept in both gaming and education (and draws heavily on the work of Jane McGonigal). In this video, Extra Credits reviews the advantages and disadvantages of the approach.

Paper #4: Theories and Methods

Because the field of Game Studies includes scholars from many different disciplines, the methods and theories of research are as varied as the approaches. It is, therefore, impossible to select a single theory or method of analysis as being dominant. A mathematician who studies their field’s version of game theory may focus on probabilities, analyzing the game engine’s method of determining failure or success in any given conflict. An economist may look at the out-of-game impact of Korean gold farmers on both the in-game and out-of-game economies. Sociologists have found fertile ground in gaming communities to study how the anonymity of online gaming impacts harassment, or how in-game gender effects interactions among characters. All of these are equally legitimate and authoritative within their own communities, and it is evident from the way that game scholars reference work in other fields that it enriches the interdisciplinary nature of the field. However, it seems that the “home” discipline from which a scholar approaches game studies largely determines what methodologies and theories they will apply to their chosen objects of study. While Aarseth’s dream of a “native” theory of game studies, divorced from its component fields, is not realized, we have traveled further in recent years than it seemed possible at first.

Of course, my own approach is grounded in English Studies, so the same theories common in analyzing literature are often applied: semiotics, discourse analysis, Marxist-tinged analyses of economies of power relationships, feminist or queer theory approaches to the gender of players and characters alike, and many more.  Discourse analysis is one useful tool for studying interactions within games, and the way those interactions shape the player’s experience of the game world. Although Hendricks’ “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming” focuses on tabletop RPGs, he uses Fairclough’s model of discourse analysis to explore the way that players interact to collectively create a narrative, codeswitching between player and character speech and adopting an almost improvisational “yes and” approach to world building. Similarly, Bourgonjon, et al utilize Burke’s Pentad of dramatic analysis to explore meaning-making and narrative, also drawing on Bogost’s procedural rhetoric as a means of analyzing how game mechanics communicate meaning to players, and the ways designers can use mechanics to steer players down a particular narrative path.

As a woman who is both a player and a designer, I am not blind to the impact of my gender on my own experience, and the experience of other women who play and create games. As a result, a feminist critical perspective can also provide important insights into gaming, as a player, a designer and a scholar. While studies have reported similar results on what percentage of all gamers are women (48% in 2014 according to a Wall Street Journal article, and a 47:53 female to male ratio according to a 2012  Entertainment Software Association survey), a level of harassment and sexism exists in the gaming industry that is shocking enough that it has made national news, in the form of “Gamergate”. But for all the women who play games, and the amount of outrage on social and mainstream media, there

Adrienne Shaw's "Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture"
Adrienne Shaw’s “Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture”

remains a paucity of clearly feminist-aligned game criticism (as opposed to cultural criticism) in the field. Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture , for example, addresses gaming from the perspective of cultural studies and feminism – essentially, studying gamer culture but not games themselves. Due to a host of cultural factors, men and women may experience gameplay, and certainly experience game culture, in different ways. Even if my own work does not explicitly address gender, understanding the feminist criticism that exists – and the reasons why there is not more of it – will inform and enrich my own scholarship.

Part of what makes Game Studies such an exciting field is the depth and breadth of disciplinary approaches to the objects of study. As a scholar of English Studies, and one with an especial interest in utilizing games as a tool to teach the skills underlying effective writing – critical thinking, research, and communication – the tools I use will no doubt be heavily influenced by my own background as a scholar of literature and a practitioner of writing education, and as my own studies deepen into composition pedagogy, I look forward to adding those theories and methodologies to my tool box as well. If anything, the sheer range of approaches makes the field somewhat intimidating, but the multiplicity of perspectives and approaches means that the field of game studies will continue to evolve alongside the games themselves.


Entertainment Software Association. “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry.” 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Grundberg, Sven, and Jens Hansegard. “Women Now Make Up Almost Half of Gamers.” Wall Street Journal 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Hendricks, Sean Q. “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming” in Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (eds. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks and W. Keith Winkler).  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc, 2003. Print.

Further Reading – Feminism and Game Studies

Pop culture website The Mary Sue on applying feminist criticism to video games.

For a very different perspective, check out Breitbart’s article on “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart”.

Gaming journalist Anita Sarkeesian’s video on the Feminist Frequency website criticizing female depictions in video games led to her receiving death threats at the height of the Gamergate scandal:

PAB #8: Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Games

Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games
Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games


Hendricks, Sean Q. “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming” in Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (eds. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks and W. Keith Winkler).  (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc, 2003).


While the majority of my articles thus far have focused on computer-based games, the bulk of my own gaming experience is actually with other forms of gaming – namely tabletop roleplaying games and live roleplaying games. While video games rely heavily on the use of graphics and sound created as part of the game’s programming to establish the atmosphere, tone, and environment, a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) is played, as the name indicates, by a group of players sitting around a table. One of the group members is the Game Master (or GM, sometimes also referred to as Dungeon Master or Storyteller), while the others are players. Random number generation to determine success or failure at combat and other challenges are determined typically by dice, but the bulk of the work to create the game’s world, all communication among characters, as well as communication between players and game master to say what actions the characters are taking, are accomplished through


Fairclough (1992)'s model of discourse analysis
Fairclough (1992)’s model of discourse analysis

speaking and listening. As a result of this, TTRPGs are particularly well suited to using critical discourse analysis (CDA) techniques to better understand the shared world – and therefore consensus – building among the players.


In Sean Hendricks’ “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming,” he uses critical discourse analysis, but also post-structuralist theory to examine the way the participants work collaboratively to create a narrative. While video games, including massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) are frequently competitive, setting player against player (PvP) as well as player against the environment (PvE), tabletop games are typically primarily played with a team of player characters going up against obstacles and foes created by the game master. Hendricks explains that post-structuralist analysis and CDA are predicated on the assumption that “elements of the social space, such as organizations, institutions, social categories, concepts, identities and relationships are determined by language use” and that “individual selves and identities are constantly restructured and repositioned through discourse” (40).  As such, TTRPGs and the accompanying books that serve as source material are, perhaps, even more fertile ground for exploration from an English Studies perspective than are video games, given that the world building is collaborative among a group of people, and is created entirely through language, rather than computer graphics.

To put TTRPGs into the contexts I have previously explored in game theory, there is an undeniable emphasis on story, and game mechanics serve purely as a means of conflict resolution when character abilities that involve interaction with obstacles or antagonists arise.  There is no game engine to govern movement, for example; the player describes the character’s actions. As such, games of this sort have ludological elements, but are often slanted very heavily toward narrative. Within that, there are games that skew further to one side or the other; Warhammer was

The Warhammer RPG grew out of a miniatures wargaming system, and battles between armies remain a major part of the roleplaying version of the game.
The Warhammer RPG grew out of a miniatures wargaming system, and battles between armies remain a major part of the roleplaying version of the game.

primarily a miniature combat wargame that eventually evolved to have a roleplaying component as well. On the other side of the spectrum are White Wolf’s aptly named Storyteller system games, including Vampire: The Masquerade, Wraith: The Oblivion, and others.

The analytical part of Hendricks’ article analyzes selections of a voice-to-text transcript of a gaming session in which he was the game master, and there were four players. He provides examples of using “discourse to create a shared culture, or set of beliefs and understandings about the fantasy frame” (43), and explores the linguistic repercussions of the way players switch between first- and third-person pronouns when describing their actions, as differentiated from and contrasted with in-character speech. Hendricks address this, stating that “the ambiguous usage of ‘me’ and ‘you’ by players during game play indicates a blending of player and character that can signal  a level of extension by the player into the game world” (41).

Even the game’s mechanics and setting are learned through language, often by reading rulebooks and players’ guides which often dwarf the kind of documentation provided to players of computer games, where visual cues and the kinetic experience of interacting with a game controller of some kind allow the player to learn-by-doing, without necessarily translating their observations and actions into written or spoken language. Surprisingly, perhaps, the amount of scholarship on TTRPGs is small in comparison to what has been written about video games, although the comparative popularity of computer games, as well as the sheer economic weight of the industry compared to tabletop games is doubtless a major factor. Prior to the turn of the millennium, games were often not seen as appropriate objects of study for academics beyond the occasional social scientist.  However, TTRPG gameplay may prove to be a fertile area for study for those who wish to approach computer game design from an English Studies point of view, or on its own as a way of examining the collaborative process of world building, immersion and engagement.

Further Reading:

For anyone unfamiliar with TTRPGs in general, Crash Course has an excellent 10 minute video explaining the concept, as well as some of the colorful history of the hobby.

James Wallis’s “Making Games That Make Stories” argues that in TTRPGs as well as computer games, “the essential plot and structure of the narrative is predetermined before the game begins and cannot be altered” (para. 1). First published in 2007 in Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, it is reproduced in full on