- Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds
In 2002, eager to expand my teaching on digital media to a new area, I embarked upon creating an undergraduate course on the culture and form of video games. At the time, I found myself groping for critical, humanistic, academic texts that took video games seriously. There were only a few to be found—most notably Mark J. P. Wolf ’s The Medium of the Video Game and Henry Jenkins and Justine Cassell’s anthology From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Instead of a wide range of academic work on gaming, I found a plethora of journalistic accounts and popular texts on video game play and history—coffee-table books that could accompany the retro Atari t-shirts my students bought at Urban Outfitters. I consequently looked to other places for new media writing on interactivity, comparative accounts that looked at games and movies, and work from literary and critical theory on narrative and play. I faced my first class—forty-two eager young men and three brave young women, all of whom were deeply passionate about video and computer games—and together we tried to have some rigorous fun understanding how video games are an interactive medium, aesthetic form, and cultural force.
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Today my version of that course bears only a passing resemblance to its first incarnation, thanks in large part to the rapid emergence [End Page 142] and development of video game studies as a viable academic field. One can now study video game design and theory at a handful of top universities, and academics interested in teaching or researching video games can join in the collegial conviviality of video game scholars at conferences dedicated to the subject, engage online through communities like those found at gamelogy.org and digra.org (the Digital Games Research Association), or access peer-reviewed scholarship on video and computer games via the online journal Game Studies ( www.gamestudies.org ). Universities even have begun to develop video game archives so students can access hard-to-find titles and key works from the early history of video games. Likewise, the students of video games have changed a bit too—today I find my students are as likely to be aspiring screen-writers who want to write for games as they are to be fanboys whose first language is Nintendo.
This nascent field (or sub-field) of video game studies has emerged only recently out of media studies, philosophy, critical theory, and new media design. Most of the credit for the rise of the field of video game studies goes to scholars like Jesper Juul, as well as Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Steven E. Jones. One thing that sets Juul’s Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds apart from much of the other work on video games, however, is his resolute commitment to discussing the merits and failures of video games as symbolic systems and experiences on their own terms and according to their own logics, rather than relying too much upon comparisons to other media. Juul is an expert at this strategy—he isolates the essential “gameness” of games (how games are structured by rules)—and places that quality in conversation with what games represent and how gamers interact with both those rules and representations. While such an approach might seem too essentializing to some, it is exactly what the new field of video game studies needs at this moment, and it picks up on conversations about such crucial qualities as game time, space, and narrative initiated in The Medium of the Video Game.1 In order to teach and talk about video games, we must first have a set of common terms and an understanding of what it is that makes video games a unique medium.
Consider the early Atari game Pong (1973), which Juul discusses in great detail. The rules of Pong are incredibly simple and stated at...