Why ludology?


At the close of 2008, videogaming academia finds itself in a decidedly odd position. The problem? In its furious attempts to disentangle itself from film academia and foreign invaders from the land of Narrative at the turn of the millennium, it has become confused. In the attempt to fend off these shadowy academic-colonisers, gaming academia became something it plainly isn’t: ludology.

Let me insert that I intend no offense to Gonzalo Frasca (whose writing proposed and popularised the term). I like his writing much more than a great many academics; he seems good-humoured and open to criticisms of his work, which is more than can be said for a great number others. I also don’t believe that he entirely intended for the whole discipline to be known as ludology. As he states in the essay, “Our main goal was to show how basic concepts of ludology could be used along with narratology to better understand videogames.”

However, it seems that somewhere, somehow, there became a general impression that ludology should be used synonymously with the general study of videogames in their entirety. Some anecdotal evidence: I used to do a short segment on the PALGN Podcast where I would briefly run through a segment of games studies; often the research for it was more illuminating for me than the end product and it was probably laughable to anyone who actually knew anything about the field. However, one week (the episode on the narratology/ludology storm-in-a-teacup) I had a minor shock when a Game Design student at a local University wrote to correct me that in fact ‘ludology’ meant the whole discipline of the study of games, and not just one perspective on the whole deal. He said that this was the way he’d been taught by his lecturers.

When did this happen? When did higher education institutions start teaching ‘ludology’?

There are problems with this. I have many complaints against the term (not necessarily the ideology behind it, however), but I’ll start at basics. Etymologically, it’s a ‘bitzer’ of a term; ludo from latin, –logy from Greek. Certainly, narratology is equally slapdash, with narrare from latin, but I’m not here to defend that. If anything, they are both etymologically silly. That’s English for you, though; it’s more a niggle than anything else. The issue is, though, that ludology then strikes as a self-aggrandising term, a humorous nonce word. For ludology surely has more in common with sexology than biology; wikipedia even has a perfect summation of what has occurred with the word under their -logy suffix entry:

As with other classical compounds, adding the suffix to a initial word-stem derived from Greek or Latin may be used to lend grandeur or the impression of scientific rigor to humble pursuits, as in cosmetology (“the study of beauty treatment”) or cynology (“the study of dog training”).

As far as I know, no-one needed a new word to define the study of film or of literature. Consulting my own University’s handbook of studies, I could only find schools of Cinema Studies or of Literature; no school of cinemology or literatology were apparent. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find a school of ludology either. The point is this: apart from being pretentious and another example of essential jargon, it essentially means nothing.

Of course, issues of semantics and pretension aside, the greatest problem of ludology is that it doesn’t actually encapsulate what it is gaming academics are often actually studying. ‘Ludology’ isn’t helpful because it overemphasises just one aspect of videogames – admittedly, a crucial aspect, but one limited aspect all the same. Videogames represent the lovechild of play, sport, film, software, architecture, theme parks, riddles and more. I have rarely seen an academic – even the most hardcore ludologist – study games with isolated and limited reference to their so-called ludic basis. Usually, at the very least some cursory examination is made of technology, or fictional contexts. What I’m saying here is that ludology might be okay (quibbles aside) for a discipline’s name if all we wanted to study was ludic elements. Admittedly, ‘Videogame studies’ or simply ‘Game studies’, my preferred alternative(s), may also have this problem; however, ‘games’ and ‘videogames’ are what this medium is known by in the ‘loose and popular sense’ (after Chisholm). In other words, I doubt you’d find your average consumer asking a cashier for their latest and greatest in ludic technology; and when dealing in academia, I find it is best to use as many ‘real’ words as possible. After all, videogames are actually the object of study here. Frasca, in fact, argues as much in his initial formulation:

We will propose the term ludology (from ludus, the Latin word for “game”), to refer to the yet non-existent “discipline that studies game and play activities”. Just like narratology, ludology should also be independent from the medium that supports the activity.

So how on earth did ludology end up becoming our discipline’s overarching title in some circles, and where do we go from here? As a mere recently-minted Cultural Studies graduate with a videogame-academic bent, I don’t feel qualified to offer anything other than guesses. However, my personal hope is that ‘ludology’ will one day die a quiet death while ‘Game Studies’ or similar alternatives take over in respectable institutions and academics not prone to intellectual hyperbole or point-proving. It’s a modest hope, but a man can dream.



Filed under study, videogames

4 responses to “Why ludology?

  1. As someone at a school with a number of really talented people doing Game Studies, I can tell you that the term ludology is pretty despised. As is narratology. In fact, the whole debate has become the game studies equivalent of “what is art?”

    I think the issue is one of emulation and occurs more often outside of the core game studies academic environment. While it’s great that there are so many people interested in intellectual discussion of a medium they love, there’s something to be said about the way the academic structures provide foundational frameworks for approaching the discipline.

    People outside of that structure must find their own framework (which often is developed word-of-mouth or word-of-blog). As a popular term, ludology just seems like a good way way to attach oneself to the discipline. As this is the case, people involved in game studies need to do a better job promoting other terms and writing posts like yours.

    I wrote a little tirade on one of my blogs last summer about the issues of game studies and things people should keep in mind when studying the medium. http://www.virtualfools.com/games/game-studies-a-students-perspective/ I’m sure some of my perspectives have changed in the last half year, but I think the core of my argument has stayed the same.

  2. My feeling is that the real need for something like ludology (I’m also not particularly fond of the term) is that right now the majority of what passes for Game Studies is really just Media Studies that concentrates on games.

    Part of what makes Cinema Studies work is that there has been a lot written about the craft of cinema. It’s my impression that this is what gives the field a sense of real legitimacy. However, there’s really no widespread corresponding work being done on the craft of game-making, video or otherwise.

  3. I think that I don’t mind the term, even though it’s quite problematic.

    And I love Frasca’s Simulation vs. Narrative, which I just can’t go past for nailing on the head the unique difference videogames present from other media.

  4. @Bobby – interesting link there. I think it’s quite heartening to hear that many of your fellow students feel the same way; being here in Australia we don’t really have the same sort of hub of gaming academia so I’m never quite sure if I’m guessing or not.

    @Charles – first, thanks for stopping by. I’ve often enjoyed gamedesignadvance.com, so it’s good to see you over here.
    It’s interesting that you talk about the ‘craft’ of game making. I feel like a lot has been written about the formal properties and the component parts of games, but that you might have a point when you say that little has been written on the actual process of making it. I often feel like your average consumer, or for that matter, average critic or even academic has very little idea of what actually goes into making a game, giving rise to nonsense paragraphs of text on ‘engines’ and such. I don’t think this means that everyone has to have made a game to comment, but it would certainly help to have some idea of what actually goes on behind the development curtain before going into detail about the technical side.

    @Ben – yes, I’ll also read almost anything by Frasca!

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