Epistemology and the study of games

Some of you might know, I recently attended a conference in Cornwall where I presented a joint paper with a friend and colleague based on her work on Cthulhu horror LARP. The conference was interdisciplinary, with a keynote speech from a renowned Medieval Historian and we both had a fabulous, if tiring, time. In the same panel as our own paper, there were two papers on horror themed computer games, and it was interesting to see how these were also being theorised. This post presents a bit of a rant about how these are studied but I also highlight some of the useful overlaps between the study of computer games and the study of LARP.

In the past I have dabbled in reading about studies of contemporary computer game RPGs and classic MUDs and MOOs (basically multiplayer text-based gaming). However, I often find the claims made about the player experience are based on little more than the imagination of the researcher. While this kind of thing might be fine for a games reviewer, I tend to feel that university researchers are obliged to do a bit more work than that, or at least be honest about the limits of what they are claiming. This is due to different opinions on, or confusion about, epistemology.

So, for non-philosophers, here’s the cheat sheet:

ontology = the study of what exists.

epistemology = the study of what we believe, or can know.

Questions about ontology, what exists, are usually for all practical purposes, simple. This campsite exists. My tent exists. The rain exists and if I don’t get my tent set up soon all my equipment exists and will get pretty wet! The problem comes in when we start talking about individual or collective experiences or symbols. For example, my hardware exists and is downloading the newest patch which will then allow me to get around the DRM and play the game I’ve purchased.  Well, the concept of ownership and digital media is a bit ropey at best, as peer-to-peer filesharing has highlighted. And is an experience a game if it feels dull and monotonous (regardless of whether it’s packaged in a shiny box)?   These debates start to cause problems for our certainties about what exists, because we cannot be certain in our epistemology – what we can know.

If you are having trouble following at this point – swallow the red pill. This illustrates the problem of ‘Descartes demon’; someone or something (like a demon, a cat, or a race of intelligent machines) could, unknown to us, be interfering with our perceptions of the world. And even if there is no interfering demon, this example implies that we cannot trust our own senses 100% of the time anyway. How we interpret what we see is based on our existing frameworks of knowledge and language built over time and experience. It is either really difficult or impossible to imagine our perceptions of reality outside of that experience. So the position most scholars of social science take on this is somewhere between ‘really difficult’ and impossible’.

If your position is ‘really difficult’, your solution to this problem of epistemology (which you have to come up with, otherwise what would be the point of research) is to find techniques to improve the likelihood that your study is an accurate study of what exists (such as running your experiment many times, or comparing your findings with multiple other scholars). If your position is ‘impossible’, then you basically accept that you can never know what exists, but only what you think exists, and you limit yourself to the study of that. Very few scholars are this far down the spectrum, but they might, for example, limit themselves to the study of ‘my experiences of gameplay’ rather than ‘gameplay’. You then have to address a further problem; is what you think the same as what everyone else thinks? This is the question of epistemology in social science, because it basically screams ‘am I doing anything useful?’  Again, it can be quite simple when we are looking at the uncomplicated things the world often seems to be.  Does that look like a wasp over there? Yes, it’s a wasp, I agree. Okay, based on our compared experiences/perceptions of the world, let’s stay away from it then!

But what about if you have never seen a wasp before? Or been stung by one? What if different people have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world based on their experience? Well that makes it difficult. And this is when both individuals are supposedly sharing ‘the same encounter’ with the wasp.

If you are studying a game, or any social experience, it is maybe okay to assume that most people will share some common cultural references or models. Ideas that seem ‘natural’ among a particular group, culture or society. However, it seems like a bit of a leap to suggest that the audience of gamers act like a sponge, absorbing the game experience as designed. We might instead agree that their individual experience will be specific to them as an individual. So studies of a game or social experience need to be based on information about that experience, collected by doing it, observing or questioning the people who do. And subsequently, what we can claim to ‘know’ about the game, needs to be acknowledged within those limits or compared across a broad range of gamers experience.

So, in my personal approach to epistemology, I have written about LARP based on my experiences and on those reported to me by other participants. I do not suggest that this resembles the definite or common experience of all LARPers. But there are (at least) two parts to a LARP game, and people have written a lot about this. There is the story, and the gameplay. There is what the organisers try to make happen, and have players experience, and then there is what they experience. Many different things influence both of these dimensions.

In discussions of computer gaming, there is the same acknowledgement of the importance of the game narrative (studied by narratologists, sometimes referred to as the diegesis or diegetic frame), and the game design (studied by ludologists).

This is a simplification, but for the sake of this (long) post let’s keep things simple. Narratologists broadly claim there is no difference between games and storytelling, and therefore no meaningful distinction between oral epics,  printed novels or point and click adventures. They argue these can all be studied using theories traditionally applied to narrative. Ludologists argue that the ‘story’ part of the game is just the icing on the cake, and what ought to be the focus of study is the rules and mechanisms of the game.

It seems that both of these approaches focus on the game itself as a real thing that exists. Or at least, the focus is on the created narrative as a cultural product, or the set of rules as an algorithmic product with multiple possible operations. I am perfectly happy with studies looking at this, but where I get twitchy is when either side starts to make claims about how players experience the narrative/ludic elements without a clear statement that outlines how the problem of epistemology has been overcome here. This requires some sort of claim about what we can know about players (by being one, observing one or asking one). But the interesting thing is, the relationship between game and player is not a simple one of design and receipt (and most scholars of games do acknowledge this). No game is thrown out into the world on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis of meaning or interpretation.

So let’s go back to LARPers again. There has been a bit of debate among LARPers about how a game operates, rules, story, and the difference between ‘Roleplayers’ and ‘Powergamers/players’. It raises its head in discussions around Player versus Player elements of games most frequently. And in such discussions there is a lot of awareness that the people who write or design the games are players too, and players switch between their focus on story and on gameplay. There’s even a sort of complex cool creative  doublethink between being your character among your enemies and being a LARPer hanging out among your friends.

So in this blog post I have included multiple hyperlinks to demonstrate the cultural codes and references I am thinking of when I use some of the terms here. But I’d like any readers to comment on whether they think that simply by adding these connections I am restricting or enhancing your diversity of (narrative or ludic) experience in reading this post.


tl:dr IMHO studies of games should look at what the players actually experience, not just the story or gameplay design. Studies of computer games distinguish between ‘plot’ and ‘game mechanics’ just like big debates in LARP do, but they could learn a few things from LARP.


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