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The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics

Editor: Melanie Swalwell, Jason Wilson
Publisher: Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Dave Jones
 REVIEW 2: Alex Meredith
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Melanie Swalwell

Alex Meredith judges our anthology to be "an excellent book," "interesting ... challenging and yet readable," and "an intelligent collection of essays which provide stimulating reading." By contrast, Dave Jones finds that our essayists "approach games from widely varied theoretical and disciplinary stances," that they don't do "enough to situate [their] discussions in the existing literature," and that our book "suffers from its desire to move 'beyond' ludology" (Jones' phrase, not ours). One could be forgiven for thinking that these are different books, and it is difficult to know how to respond to such diverging reviews.

I appreciate the time Meredith and Jones have taken to read and review our collection, and Meredith offers some useful glosses of some of the chapters. He expresses some reservations regarding our emphases, to which he is entitled. I find it quite interesting that Meredith reads many of the essays as being concerned with game space, and that he sees some undesirable repetition in this. While a number of essays do reference spatial concepts, experiences, and theories -- notably Bernadette Flynn's focus on navigation and embodiment, Brett Nicholls and Simon Ryan's writing on Thirdspace, and my own work on movement and kinaesthetic responsiveness -- each does this in very distinct ways, addressing a spread of quite different issues and concerns. I would not say this is repetitive, nor is space an over-riding concern for the vast majority of our contributors. As editors, we sought to develop resonances between the work of the different contributors; it's my hope that suggestive frictions will be generated for at least some readers.

Related to this, I would like to explain our editorial approach a little, as it bears on both reviewers' questioning the relevance of our title. Each essay does address games' pleasures, though pleasure is not always the overriding concern. Rather than (vainly) setting out to cover all aspects of the pleasures of computer gaming in neatly divided textbook fashion, we chose instead to feature in-depth essays that we found suggestive, or that seemed to go somewhere interesting, in an attempt to compile a book of great games cultural criticism -- one that we ourselves would like to read. Perhaps our title is a bit cheeky, however, we make no claims for total coverage, so there is plenty of scope for others to fill in the "gaps" where they perceive them to lie.

While I could quibble over some of the detail in Meredith's chapter summaries, I think he has covered the collection reasonably well (and he deserves credit for attempting such succinct summaries of complex arguments).

Jones' review is altogether different. Jones focuses on the introductory chapter in which Jason Wilson and I critique the unhelpful and inaccurate characterisation of non-formalist games research as "narratology." Jones writes, "many of these essays would have benefited significantly from a more timely [sic] read of recent ludologically-oriented criticism, especially with regard to player agency and subjectivity." Jones has missed the point entirely. Apart from his ability to neatly repeat the very gestures of the ludological orthodoxy that we are critiquing, his comment is stunning for the ease with which it ignores entire traditions of work on these very subjects (which many of our authors discuss at length).

Jones' claim that our authors' discussions are not sufficiently situated in the existing literature is demonstrably inaccurate: the "existing literature" is subjectively defined. What he means, of course, is that our discussions are not sufficiently situated in the literature that he thinks we ought to be referencing. If only we would all just sit down and take our ludological medicine! It simply does not follow that just because "some influential ludologists have softened their initially entrenched positions regarding the fictional representations in video games," the authors ought to take up with them. Perhaps we would if we were centrally concerned with the debate about narrative in games, but that's the point (for those who have not read our book, none of the essays is centrally concerned with narrative). It makes no sense for researchers to take their intellectual bearings from a position/s with little of relevance to say about the specific areas in which they work. Why would they?

A wider concern here is that the establishment of such orthodoxies whittles down "acceptable" ways of talking and writing about games and games-related objects of study, at least within the constructs of institutionalised Game Studies (ie. particular journals, conferences, etc). It was a pleasant surprise to read a call for papers this week asserting that "Game Studies as a field is broadly interdisciplinary, welcoming a variety of theoretical, methodological and computational approaches to the study of games and play ..." The field thus described is only partially recognisable to me, but the flip-side of this is the many cognate fields and disciplines that are interested in digital games (and whose readers we were cognisant of writing for).

Ultimately, I suspect it comes down to how you see the field. For me, the social and cultural significance of games embraces a much wider series of debates than has perhaps been contemplated. These debates are unlikely to be illuminated by ludological approaches alone. I would like to think that the academic games studies community was big enough to accommodate such heterogeneous projects, voices, and views. If Game Studies is not able to embrace diversity, it will suffer and lose its vitality to other cognate fields, which are more accommodating of heterogeneous approaches and interdisciplinary endeavour.

Melanie Swalwell


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