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Level Three: A Brief Meditation
on Words and Contexts
On Formalism and Singular They
While game studies as an academic field, informed by social sciences and humanities approaches, can look back on a long, respected history from the early twentieth century to the present, it never attracted—or tried to attract—widespread public attention. This did not change significantly even with the advent of video games in the 1980s, which partly reflected the fact that computer games were widely sneezed at both in academia and established media formats.
However, as soon as video games caught up with other media, were put on display in distinguished museums like any other respected art form, and deemed worthy of more extensive scholarly attention, the conversation about games became both more popular and more comprehensive. Suddenly, video games were discussed from a wide variety of media studies perspectives, including content analysis, media effects, media use, media psychology, communication theory in general, and, of course, cultural studies and critical theory.
This did not go over terribly well in certain circles. From the industry’s and the developers’ sides, arguments ranged from exceptionalist claims that video games were different from any other media, including traditional games, to curious assertions that video games are not media at all because they wouldn’t fit the (seriously outdated) sender–message–receiver model.
Gamers, on the other hand, didn’t really care at first. As long as these new forms of attention wouldn’t translate into censorship or reduce the steady flow of games they were personally into, video games as “respected media” could even rub off and refurbish the somewhat dorky reputation popularly attached to video game devotees.
But, alongside greater attention and an increasingly professionalized, maturing video game industry, markets and consumer identities had changed too. New audiences came to the table with immense combined buying power. These audiences not only wanted to play different and more diverse video games. They also wanted to see themselves represented in video games, for everything from being offered role models to becoming visible to be understood and accepted by society at large.
Alas, development floors and upper management tiers in the video game industry, like in all tech industries, were and are almost devoid of the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and many other professionally and socially marginalized groups and subgroups. Within games, consequently, all these demographics were equally underrepresented as characters with agency, while remaining notoriously overrepresented as motivational objects in stereotypical fashion.
Then, a few years ago, at least the latter slowly began to change, and that spelled trouble.
Invariably, where long-established privileges are questioned, pandemonium ensues. And so it did, from 2014 on, with the issuing of death, rape, and bomb threats against female developers, game journalists, and cultural critics on a daily basis, bracketed on social media by that Unspeakable Hashtag That Shall Not Be Named and an alarming level of vicious, hateful misogyny and rampant antisemitism. A movement for which culture wasn’t “real” but an “ideology,” where game criticism wasn’t supposed to talk about representation and the politics of representation but only pixels and polygons, not about story and characters but frags and frame rates, not about social contexts and cultural subtexts but combos and controls. And, of course, “fun”—the ever-ready tactical nuclear Redeemer missile to pulverize any discussion about culture’s embeddedness in games and games’ embeddedness in culture.
Which, at last, brought the old “formalism wars” to a fever pitch.
Now, clinging to embattled terminologies from game studies’ remarkably fruitless narratology vs. ludology debates equates clinging to a ludocentric terminology fraught with unsavory historical ballast—and a not-so-recent past where formalism was wielded like a sledgehammer to beat cultural critics over the head with.
This history had serious consequences for the terminology of the Ludotronics paradigm.
First off, the term formalism, still employed in early drafts, was unceremoniously dropped. Most of those who continue to use the term to talk about video game design, irrespective of using it in its narrow sense or in keeping with a broader definition, will find themselves on the wrong side of terminology soon. Then, both Narratology and Ludology had their respective fangs filed down and were removed from informing actual design decisions, as discussed in the preceding beat. (And yes, the Ludotronics paradigm also works with Tetris, formalism’s favorite theatrical prop.)
All this needs to be said because it is the very foundation the Ludotronics paradigm is built upon. Ludotronics is not only a toolbox to help translate ideas into pitches and proposals. It is also a toolbox to facilitate the design and development of more diverse, more inclusive, and more rewarding game experiences in the future, supported by language compatible with that objective. Part of which, 19th century number-agreement fetishism and 21st century faux conservatism notwithstanding, will be the use of “singular they,” with a light sprinkling of more specific pronouns here and there. Singular they has always been used by literary giants and regarded as perfectly grammatical, and even explicitly recommended by editorial style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style or Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries and reference books. What makes it so important today, moreover, is that singular they both overtly and surreptitiously lends supports to all those who don’t fit into binary gender identities.
In all likelihood, there will always be a substantial number of games where manly men can play a manly man and shoot at everything that moves—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and many players who are not manly men will certainly enjoy them too. But the world has moved on, and there should be, and will be, a growing number of wildly different games for wildly different audiences in equal abundance.
Now that you have successfully completed the Preliminary phase as your basic tutorial, you can proceed to the Preparation phase—and get into the thick of the action right away!