How I Started to Study Games

I realized videogames have been my subject of study for the last 10 years. At first, they were a secondary field of interest while Shakespeare on Film was my research focus; I went on to study games full time in 2004, when I started my PhD in Digital Media in Georgia Tech. Now my professional life revolves around videogames.

I can remember the moment I realized I wanted to study games. Although I do not recall the exact date, I remember it was a Friday afternoon in late May, during the doctoral seminar on early Gothic Literature. It was hot, and I felt rather spacey. We were discussing several short texts in class; and one of them was “Sir Bertrand, A Fragment” by Anna Laetitia Aikin. This was one of those short stories presented as a “found fragment,” in order to lend some minimum credibility to what is really a fantasy story.

During the discussion of the piece, I commented that the story reminded me of a videogame. Sir Bertrand enters this castle, following a light, and gets to a vault where a living armour attacks him:

“The vault, at length, suddenly opened into a lofty gallery, in the midst of which a figure appeared, compleatly armed, with a terrible frown and menacing gesture, and brandishing a sword in his hand.”

It was the following sentence that (literally) gave me the key:

“Sir Bertrand undauntedly sprung forwards; and aiming a fierce blow at the figure, it instantly vanished, letting fall a massy iron key.”

Growing up playing videogames, I had seen this a thousand times: I fight an enemy, I kill the enemy and bleemp! there was an item that I picked up and used somewhere else. It gets better: the key opens a “brazen lock” which takes Sir Bertrand to the next room, where a coffin appears. It would be trite to think that  Dracula was going to jump out of the coffin. But no! It was a lady in distress, and as the player Sir Bertrand gets close to it, two large statues come to life and brandish their swords. A timely kiss makes the whole place collapses before the statues get to him.

The scene just felt like the beginning of Vampire Killer (the original Castlevania, people, but that’s another story). The elements were familiar: arriving to the castle, enemies attacking you that “drop” items that you can use to advance in the game, there’s even a coffin! I made my case to my professor, Manuel Aguirre, who did not know much about videogames. My exact argument was probably delivered though a siesta cloud, whose dreamy mood inhibited my talking clearly. The sleepy rambling would have gone unnoticed, if it weren’t for my professor intently listening to me, encouraging me to keep talking and, worse enough, bringing up Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. My paper for that class ended up dealing with the relationship between arcade games (or what we call in Spain “arcade games,” which are 2D action games and do not have much to do with actual arcades) and how they replicate (or not) the structure proposed by Propp and Joseph Campbell. (Later we realized it’d be difficult to justify the relevance of the paper to the seminar, but both my professor and I were too enthusiastic about the topic to consider such trifling matters.)

I took this seriously enough that while I was still in Spain I went back to playing videogames, and catch up with what I had missed while studying my undergrad. Games then were a vastly unexplored field, and there was so much to learn. Since in my work then I studied theatre and was part of the drama company in my school, I started musing whether one could make games as part of studying them. When one of my (most mediocre) professors heard I was coming to the US to study, he came up to me and told me that I should forget about videogames, they were a waste of time, and I should stick to Shakespeare. That was another spur to move into games. I still love my Shakespeare, and at times I miss being in a field where there is a tradition and you don’t have to define foundational terms. But I would be very bored without the challenges of studying games.

So that’s where I began. It’s been a long road, and at times I feel like I spent forever in graduate school, but on this journey I’ve also learned a lot about games, players, and the culture surrounding them. Since some of the ludologists not only have admitted that games do indeed relate to narratives and have started applying narratological frameworks to games, now it seems okay to say that one started studying games as narratives. What I started by following Sir Bertrand as a player character was relatively basic; ten years later, the adventure goes on.

So, if you study or work in games, what’s your story?

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