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Why Game Studies Now? Video Games: A New Art Form



Video games are a new art form, and this, the author argues, is one good reason why now is the right time for game studies. As a new art form, one largely immune to traditional tools developed for the analysis of literature and film, video games will challenge researchers to develop new analytical tools and will become a new type of “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke's phrase for the role of literature. This article discusses several of the features that make video games a unique art form, features that will, the author believes, come to play a role in analyses of games in the emerging field of game studies.
10.1177/1555412005281788ARTICLEGames and CultureGee / A New Art Form
Why Game Studies Now?
Video Games: A New Art Form
James Paul Gee
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Video games are a new art form, and this, the author argues, is one good reason why now
is the right time for game studies. As a new art form, one largely immune to traditional
tools developed for the analysis of literature and film, video games will challenge re
searchers to develop new analytical tools and will become a new type of “equipment for
living, to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase for the role of literature. This article discusses sev
eral of the features that make video games a unique art form, features that will, the author
believes, come to play a role in analyses of games in the emerging field of game studies.
Keywords: video games; learning; psychology; education
ideo games are a new art form. That is one reason why now is the right time for
game studies (for other reasons, see Gee, 2003). The importance of this claim is
this: As a new art form, one largely immune to traditional tools developed for the ana-
lysis of literature and film, video games will challenge us to develop new analytical
tools and will become a new type of “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke’s
(1973) phrase for the role of literature. The claim that video games are art is highly
controversial, so let me explain what I mean.
In Tetris, one of the most popular video games ever, players rotate simple shapes as
they fall down the screen, attempting to lock them together with other shapes at the
bottom of the screen. The shapes and movements in Tetris have no particular mean
ing. In a sense, all video games are like Tetris. They are composed of rules that specify
the allowable shapes, movements, and combinations of shapes and movements in the
game (Koster, 2005).
In a game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night however, each of the shapes,
movements, and combinations that constitutes the game is assigned a meaning. A
given shape is assigned to represent an actor like Alucard (Dracula’s half-human son)
or a Sword Lord; another shape is assigned to represent an object like a treasure chest
or a pool of water; and so forth. A certain combination of shapes and movements is
assigned to represent an action like Alucard kills a Sword Lord with an axe.” Long
time players are aware that the shapes and movements in a game don’t have to look
much like what they mean. The original Metroid is made up of pixels so crude that one
Games and Culture
Volume 1 Number 1
January 2006 58-61
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can barely tell what they stand for, but players still know they are helping Samus Aran
infiltrate the space pirates’ home planet Zebes.
What Castlevania and Metroid do and Tetris doesn’t is marry an abstract rule sys
tem about shapes, movements, and combinations with story elements. By story ele
ments, I mean actors (e.g., hunters and vampires), objects (e.g., chests and pools),
actions (e.g., opening chests, killing monsters), states (e.g., being damaged), and
events (e.g., dying). I call these story elements because after all, stories are composed
of such things. By manipulating these shapes, movements, and combinations, the
player produces and manipulates story elements. Thus, games like Castlevania and
Metroid are story element generators.
Of course, one could do the same with Tetris, and people have done just that, in par
ticular making versions of the game where the pieces look like humans in different
poses and locking them together represents sex. Tetris becomes—sadly in this case—a
story element generator about sex. I use the term story elements and not story because
in no sense does such story element generation, either in Castlevania or in sex Tetris,
generate by itself whole stories of any depth—just elements of stories.
So what? So what that Castlevania allows players to freely generate story ele-
ments? There are three answers to this question.
The first answer is this: The assignment of meaning to each shape, movement, and
combination in Castlevania helps determine what they should look like and sound like,
either in the game or in the player’s mind. Just as saying that a given shape in Tetris
represents a human suggests we might draw the shape to look like a contorted person,
the meaning assignments in Castlevania suggest—help generate—the very visual de-
sign of the game. The Sword Lord looks the way he does because this object has been
assigned the meaning Sword Lord in a Dracula universe. There is of course still lots of
room for what the Sword Lord can look like in detail, but he’s not likely to look like an
ice cream cone. This creates an ambiance or sensory metaphor for the game. It quite
literally gives what is, after all, just an abstract rule system a certain mood, feeling,
sound, and look.
Ambiance, mood, feeling, sound, look: These all sound like mere window dress
ing. But they are a large part of the pleasure the game gives. The original Castlevania
game for the Sony PSone is subtitled Symphony of the Night. And indeed, moving
through this game is like moving through a symphony where every “tone” (image) and
combination of “tones” (images) creates moods, feelings, and ambiance, not primarily
information (as in movies and books). The experience of playing the game is closer to
living inside a symphony than to living inside a book. And the symphony is not just
visual, but it is composed as well of sounds, music, actions, decisions, and bodily feel
ings that flow along as the player and virtual character (Alucard) act together in the
game world.
The second answer to our so what question is this: Humans find story elements pro
foundly meaningful and are at a loss when they cannot see the world in terms of such
elements. We try to interpret everything that happens as if it were part of some story,
even if we don’t know the whole story—and in fact, in life we rarely know the whole
Gee / A New Art Form 59
story (Bruner, 1986). Castlevania allows players to flow through the game always pro
ducing obvious narrative sense, even in the absence of some whole and finished
This generation of story elements is also part of the symphony I discussed earlier.
Because all the objects and movements in the game have been assigned meanings and
these meanings have helped generate the visual and auditory design of the game, the
actions we players carry out produce more and more of that design. We produce more
and more notes that help create the symphony. Castlevania is an instrument on which
the player plays a visual, motoric, auditory, kinesthetic, and decision-making sym
phony. For example, for me, the look, feel, and flow of Alucard’s movements as he
jumps across underground springs of water at the bottom of the castle while simulta
neously breaking Frozen Shades into ice crystals is one particularly beautiful move
ment (and moment) in the overall symphony that the playing of Castlevania consti
tutes. And it is one I produce.
The third answer to our so what question is this: The marriage of rules and story ele
ment meanings in Castlevania allows for two quite different stories to exist in the
game. The first story is the one told in the Castlevania games. This is the designer’s
story (which of course gets elaborated and transformed on fan fiction sites).
But there is a second story. Every player of Castlevania who does everything you
can do in the game will in the end have done all the same things. A player who does
less will have done some subset of this. However, each player of Castlevania will have
done and found things in different orders and in different ways from each other. Play-
ers will have ventured into the parts of the castle in different orders, they will have
revisited them a different number of times. They will have faced the bosses at different
times and will have defeated them in different ways. They will have found key items in
different orders. They will have made different choices of what strategies to use and
what equipment to wear and use. This is to say that each player will have enacted a dif-
ferent trajectory through the game.
What allow us to feel and recognize a different trajectory in a game like Castlevania
are the story elements. We can recognize that one distinctive event (e.g., Alucard
killed his first Sword Lord) happened before or after another distinctive event
(Alucard found the gold ring). Story elements give the player a way to mark time, and
against this marking each player comes to see that they have enacted a unique trajec
tory through the game space.
This trajectory has an important consequence. Your Alucard is different than mine.
Yours had a different trajectory than mine. The hero is thus not Alucard from the
designer’s story or you the real-world player. It is Alucard-you, a melding of the vir
tual character, Alucard, and you, the real-world player who has steered Alucard on a
unique trajectory through the game.
This trajectory is the second story. Because it is a story produced jointly by the real-
world player and the virtual-world character, I call it the real-virtual story (Gee, 2005).
This is the important story in Castlevania. It is to this story that players attach their
fantasies and desires. This trajectory is personal and individual in a game like Castle
vania; it is personal and social in a multiplayer game like World of Warcraft.
60 Games and Culture
This proactive production by players of story elements, a visual-motoric-auditory-
decision-making symphony, and a unique real-virtual story produces a new form of
performance art coproduced by players and game designers. We have as yet no useful
tools for analyzing the elements that make up this art form. But it is a form that has the
potential to integrate pleasure, learning, reflection, and expanded living in ways that
we expect from art.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Burke, K. (1973). The philosophy of literary form (3rd Rev. ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave/
Gee, J. P. (2005). Why video games are good for your soul: Pleasure and learning. Melbourne, Australia:
Common Ground Press.
Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.
James Paul Gee is the Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
He is the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003), Situated Lan-
guage and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (2004), and Why Video Games Are Good for Your
Soul (2005), among other books.
Gee / A New Art Form 61
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Preface PART 1: TWO NATURAL KINDS 1. Approaching the Literary 2. Two Modes of Thought 3. Possible Castles PART 2: LANGUAGE AND REALITY 4. The Transactional Self 5. The Inspiration of Vygotsky 6. Psychological Reality 7. Nelson Goodman's Worlds 8. Thought and Emotion PART 3: ACTING IN CONSTRUCTED WORLDS 9. The Language of Education 10. Developmental Theory as Culture Afterword Appendix: A Reader's Retelling of "Clay" by James Joyce Notes Credits Index
Why video games are good for your soul: Pleasure and learning
  • J P Gee
Gee, J. P. (2005). Why video games are good for your soul: Pleasure and learning. Melbourne, Australia: Common Ground Press.
The philosophy of literary form
  • K Burke
Burke, K. (1973). The philosophy of literary form (3rd Rev. ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
He is the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
James Paul Gee is the Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003), Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (2004), and Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul (2005), among other books.