Ludology: a mysterious field in a familiar industry

My journey through the video game industry is one many can relate to. I have spent countless hours discussing the big plans each developer has for their career, and pondered the many ways we could find fulfilling work that allowed us to contribute our skills to the industry. Some wanted to be QA managers, others aspired to be producers, some wanted to be level designers, while others sought to be concept artists; we all sat together for quick lunches and late dinners discussing our dreams.

Through each and every conversation I’ve had I’ve always been fascinated with the end goal of each person, and how their passion for games was manifested in a dream for themselves within the industry. For me, my passion has been interacting with the people, and the study of the games themselves. My path has been difficult and, like most, it started with an assumption that there were very few roles within the industry: you’d have to be a programmer, an artist, a producer, or a QA tester.

Searching for a discipline

In my search for a discipline within the video game industry I pursued every lead I could find. I began with seeking an education in production, then art, then, during a winter break from college, I went to an E3 type convention called e-for-all. There a guest speaker gave a talk about the different disciplines within video game development and introduced me to the concept of game design.  From there I looked at game design programs at different universities until finally finding and completing a Game Design degree from Full Sail University.

I felt I had found the theoretical, cerebral, conceptual role I was made for. Game Design represented a deep exploration of the balance of a game based on design principles. It wasn’t just about the hard technical skills of programming, or art asset creation, it was about creating meaningful choice through the game’s mechanics.

games-stories

I have worked within the video game industry for 6 years in companies big and small, on AAA titles and mobile games, in publishing and development companies, through overtime and contract breaks. In that time I have come to learn what it means to be a game designer, and a developer; I have come to realize that my greatest, most passionate moments within those experiences have been the discussions I’ve had with the developers, my fellow gamers, about the games we were creating, and how to make them better based on studied design principles.

Discovering the hidden study

Within one of my Game Design courses at Full Sail University I became acquainted with the term Ludology (from the latin word for games, ludus), meaning the study of games. We were encouraged to adopt the mindset that as designers we were also ludologists.  To many of my classmates this was just another course in the discussion of what game design is, but to me it was a preface for the form my career would eventually take.

full-sail

For a period of time I considered a life of teaching game design to the next generation of developers, to help them prepare for and bypass the pitfalls I had seen so many teams encounter when creating their dream game. It included the right people, students willing to learn, and peers to learn from, academics who wished to discuss topics in-depth, and people interested in the past, present, and future of our industry, yet this was still not the true expression of my passion.

In my research into graduate programs and professors teaching or researching ludological topics, it became clear that the field is far from being a unified area of study and is thoroughly underrepresented. The truth is that even within the video game industry itself, the terms ludology and ludologist are unfamiliar to most.

So, what is Ludology?

Ludology is the study of games including but not limited to:

  • Video games
  • Analogue games
  • Sports
  • The history of games

video-game-timeline

It is an overarching study that researches games as structures, play as a behavior, and the impact of games on society and culture.

Current ludological work

Ludology currently lacks a cohesive academic base and instead relies upon researchers and academics from other fields to contribute to the study. These fields include:

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Computer science
  • Media studies
  • Journalism

console-game1

The lack of having dedicated ludologists studying games makes it so the majority of our understanding of game studies comes from people outside of the gaming world. If ludology is only represented by outside research, such as studies seeking to prove that games make children violent, or that educational games can help teach our children by tricking them into thinking learning is fun, then we miss the opportunity to investigate the true issues that are important to the gaming community.

The truth of the matter is that learning is an intrinsic part of gaming. Each choice the players make within a game about politics, planning and strategy, morality, dialogue and diplomacy, problem solving and experimentation, is a learning experience and gamers know this. Doing a long-term study about how playing games impacts the decision making capacity of gamers vs non-gamers would be a worthwhile study. Yet, that perspective would be hard for a non-gamer to imagine as an application of ludology, and isn’t as flashy as the controversial debate on violence.

What ludology isn’t

  • Reviewing games
  • Video game journalism
  • Industry news

mass-effect-3-metacritic-ps3

Ludology goes beyond the individual analysis of games and giving them a score based on their quality, novelty, or gameplay. It goes beyond the study of the industry as an evolving business and game sales. It isn’t the news stories about video game release dates, or discussions of video game trailers.

Without a distinction between a commentary on and the study of games it can be difficult to legitimize ludology in the minds of the academic world and society in general. In our society, video games are seen as a “mindless” pastime with the highest level of analysis appearing to be game reviews.

Why ludology matters

Currently, a lack of ludological research leaves the world with only the commercial side of gaming. This leaves us with:

  • A need to combat the misconceptions behind games
  • A lack of research into how games impact society
  • A lack of studies investigating the impact of games on the players
  • A lack of a scholarly approach to the study of games as a medium

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It can be an uphill battle to argue that there could be more to games than button mashing and violence.  A recent ESA report released in 2016 and an article by Intel  in 2015 estimated that 1.8 billion people in the world play video games. Though societies around the world try to paint the picture of gamer culture as an obscure demographic, they are a substantial and underrepresented part of global culture.

It is up to us within the gaming and game development community to push ludology forward and represent games for all they mean to us, to show the good they bring to our lives, and how special the experience of playing a game can be. If we refuse to participate, then we will remain a misunderstood community of people, and ludology will exists only as a curiosity to be indulged in by the other realms of academia, happy to study, judge, and present us and our culture as an obscure sociological anomaly.

Prior to this article had you heard of ludology? If so, what did you know / what did you think about ludology as a study? Do you believe that game studies is a worthwhile academic venture? Do you feel it would benefit ludology if more people with gaming experience were the ones discussing the topics of study? Or do you believe that having people in other fields of study helps keep ludological studies objective? Are you curious to learn more about ludology and how to get involved in it? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please respond to the thread for this article, or talk to me through my email or any of my social media: playprofessor@gmail.com, FacebookTwitter.

Play Professor is the blog of ludologist and video game journalist Andrew Mantilla. You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

 

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