Toward Understanding Disciplinary Divides within Games
New York University Tandon School of Engineering
Brooklyn, New York 11201
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California 95064
Recent work has highlighted a notable divide in communication and
collaboration between technical and social science/humanities dis-
ciplines within games research. In order to provide deeper insight
around this apparent separation and underlying dierence in epis-
temic cultures, we interviewed experts from various communities
within games research. Our ndings highlight some fundamental
dierences in research methodologies, publication practices, and
epistemic cultures that need consideration in the larger discus-
sion around future directions of games research. We in turn utilize
these diering viewpoints to consider an assortment of approaches
that could potentially better address the needs of technical, social
science, and humanities sub-communities within games research.
•General and reference →Surveys and overviews;
Games Research, Expert Interviews, Epistemic Cultures
ACM Reference format:
Edward Melcer and Katherine Isbister. 2017. Toward Understanding Disci-
plinary Divides within Games Research. In Proceedings of FDG’17, Hyannis,
MA, USA, August 14-17, 2017, 4 pages.
Recent work has highlighted a notable division in communication
and collaboration between technical and social science/humanities
communities within games research [
]. While limited commu-
nication and shared work between underlying disciplines is not
necessarily detrimental to the eld, understanding the causes for
disciplinary divides could help improve collaboration and ultimately
foster innovative ideas by facilitating work across disciplines on
shared problems, particularly in applied contexts .
One common theme underlying both the motivations for and
barriers to eectively unifying communities of games research is
the divergence of epistemic cultures. This results in dierences
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concerning publication practices, peer review, funding, methodolo-
gies, etc. required to achieve academic rigor necessary for hiring,
tenure, and promotion [
]. In order to improve communication
and collaboration between games research disciplines, a deeper
understanding and conversation around these dierences is useful.
This paper addresses rst steps towards that goal by presenting
ndings from interviews with seven games research experts in
social science and humanities domains (complementing prior re-
search concerning technical domains [
]) to highlight some key
epistemic dierences underlying the games research community.
Overall, the intention of this paper is not to make claims about or
take a position towards some "ideal" venue, discipline, or direction
for games research. Rather, we intend for these ndings to act more
as an entry point and preliminary set of fundamental considerations
toward discussion around future directions of games research.
2 RELATED WORK
2.1 Division of Games Research Disciplines
Recent work by Melcer et al. [
] identied key themes and sub-
communities within games research using a bibliometric study of
over 8,000 papers from 48 core games research venues. From this
data driven approach focusing on journal and conference papers,
one notable result was how little representation there was of crucial
humanities and social science focused communities that have pro-
foundly impacted games research (e.g., game studies). This likely
happened as a consequence of excluding books from the sampling
process. On the other hand, technically focused communities such
as Articial Intelligence and Interactive Narrative appeared very
clearly in the results. Thus their attempt to generate a broad picture
of the eld was not comprehensive because it did not take into ac-
count publication practices across the entire spectrum of research
In a similar vein, Deterding [
] recently examined game studies
through the lens of interdisciplinarity, nding that rather than be-
coming a diverse interdisciplinary eld (i.e., reciprocal interaction
between disciplines [
]), it is instead transitioning to a narrower
multidisciplinary one (i.e., dierent disciplines that are working
on a problem in parallel or sequentially without challenging dis-
ciplinary boundaries [
]). He argues that this is due in part to the
legitimization of games research to the larger academic community–
HCI and communication research are notable examples–and the
signicant barriers scholars commonly encounter in young inter-
disciplinary elds such as games studies. To address this transition,
Deterding suggested the usage of shared boundary objects and mid-
dle range theories (i.e., concepts and frameworks that can remain
FDG’17, August 14-17, 2017, Hyannis, MA, USA Edward Melcer and Katherine Isbister
discipline-specic and enable cooperative work in the absence of
larger community consensus ).
We conducted semi-structured interviews with expert games re-
searchers in order to gain a better understanding of the dierences
in epistemic cultures within the games research community. Initial
questions covered topics such as the structure of the games research
community (e.g., “How have you seen games research change over
time? What communities have emerged?”), publication outlets (e.g.,
“Where do people in X publish?”), academic inuence (e.g., “How do
people in your disciple discuss and frame inuence?”), and keeping
up to date on current trends in the eld (e.g., “How do you keep
track of themes or trends in your eld?”). Interviews were analyzed
using a bottom up, iterative open coding approach to identify dif-
ferent categories of epistemic dierences, followed by axial coding
of these categories to identify underlying themes .
To better understand why crucial communities such as games stud-
ies were largely missing from the eld wide analysis by Melcer et al.
], we interviewed expert games researchers from humanities and
social science disciplines. This was done to balance Melcer et al.’s
technical focus with viewpoints from other major disciplines within
games research, providing a broader perspective on disciplinary
dierences. Seven expert games researchers (6 male and 1 female
ranging from 13 to 33 years of research experience, M=19.15) were
interviewed, with two participants from North American games
research programs and the remaining ve from European programs.
One participant was from the game history discipline and the re-
maining six were in game studies spanning topics such as game
education, ethics, game ontology, game narrative, virtual environ-
ments, and player immersion.
4 DISCUSSION OF RESULTS
4.1 Dierences Across Communities
During interviews, experts identied a number of factors illustrat-
ing dissimilarities between epistemic cultures in games research.
Rather than take a position towards the validity of any one disci-
pline or epistemology, we instead present expert descriptions in
conjunction with literature discussions of these processes for both
technical and humanities/social science domains. This is done to
balance the technical approach of Melcer et al. [
] and oer a
broader perspective to more appropriately address the needs of a
greater number of disciplines.
4.2 Publication Practices: Conference vs. Book
All seven experts noted a drastic dierence between technical and
humanities communities in publication practices. I.e., “It depends
on the eld. If I’m looking at HCI, I’m going to look more at papers
and conferences. If I’m looking at humanities, I’ll nd some things
in papers but most of the work I will nd is going to be in books,”
Expert 4 (E4).
Historically, technical communities within computer science
(e.g., HCI, computer graphics, AI/CI, etc.) have treated conferences
as the primary publication venue for research. I.e., “When I go
to a conference, I’m publishing a paper and that needs to go into
some archival place. That is the end of it; there are no steps after
that. That is what you see in Computer Science”, E1. This is due in
large part to early computer science research needing swift review
and distribution of results to keep up with the rapid growth of
the eld [
]. As a result, journals in computer science domains
have not reached the same levels of prestige as conferences, with
only a tiny proportion of conference papers ever being extended
for publication in a journal. This focus on conference publications,
however, is a distinctly atypical practice when compared to other
scientic communities [
], and presents its own set of challenges
such as skew towards short-term, deadline-driven research and a
resulting emphasis on "least-publishable units" (cf., [
] for more
On the other extreme, game research communities such as games
studies primarily focus on books as an end destination for published
work. Consequently, review and distribution of ideas is slower in
these communities, since books and book chapters take longer to
write than conference papers. However, to address the slower dis-
semination of concepts and trends, conferences instead become a
forum to share and discuss preliminary work/ideas. E.g., “Confer-
ences are the spaces where you present work in progress at a very
early stage, even if it’s a full paper. And from those conferences,
things will pop up that will then crystallize into books”, E3.
4.3 Formulating Ideas: Workshops vs.
Experts also identied distinct dierences in the way the commu-
nities formulate ideas. For example, humanities scholars in game
research primarily view conferences as a means for networking and
presenting/discussing preliminary ideas, rather than as a venue in
which to present completed work. As a result, extended abstracts
and even full papers submitted to these conferences are generally
used to present work in progress. E.g. , “You go to the conference
to get feedback, then you go and x your paper, present it again,
and hope it’s better. Then it turns into a book chapter or a book,
but it won’t necessarily turn into Journal papers... That paper at
the conference means nothing, I wouldn’t even put it on my CV”,
Technical communities instead use extended abstracts, work-
shops, and poster sessions for dissemination and discussion of early
ideas. Notably, the purpose of workshops is actually twofold in that
it presents and discusses preliminary work/ideas, as well as helps
to organize new sub-communities around emerging topics. While
these forums are a prominent aspect of technically focused confer-
ences, they remain distinct from larger conference proceedings and
4.4 Methodology & Industry: Looking Forward
vs. Looking Back
Perhaps the most notable and interesting distinction that 4 of the 7
experts identied between technical and social science/humanities
disciplines was dierences in methodology and how this relates to
commercial practice in the eld of games. I.e., “So there’s a tension
Toward Understanding Disciplinary Divides within Games Research FDG’17, August 14-17, 2017, Hyannis, MA, USA
between communities within game research that want to build
things and communities that want to critically analyze things”, E2.
Domains such as game studies typically engage in a reective
]. Whether it is humanities scholars interested in how
games express meaning or social science researchers interested
in players and how games aect them, the methodology itself is
inherently reective and focused around contextualizing aspects of
games. As a result, with relation to industry, these domains gener-
ally look upon an existing phenomenon or game(s) to understand
their success, impacts on players, etc. As new phenomena arise in
games and play, these scholars take them up as important objects
Conversely, technically focused domains such as HCI and AI/CI
commonly embrace the notion of “building [games, algorithms, etc.]
as an argument”, E3. They attempt to look forward to shape the
technical direction and aspects around the creation of games in
industry. As a result, much of the work presented in these domains
formulates algorithms/tools (e.g., [
]), produces design guidelines
]), etc., with the intention of improving future games and
the game creation process.
E1 perhaps summarizes this distinction best, “So I guess what’s
interesting about games is that a lot of what’s trending has to
do with what the industry’s doing... A lot of times in computer
science, computer science research is leading industries. And some
games research is like that, but also a lot of games research is about
discussing stu that’s already happened; trying to make sense of
why was this game interesting, why is this game so popular, or how
are people adapting how they play games to online streaming or
whatever it is. So in that sense it sort of follows rather than leads.”
We believe this dierence is critical to grasp, as it serves to high-
light the synergistic possibilities of strengthening collaboration
and communication between games research disciplines. Technical
research is crucial for providing new technologies and approaches
to creating games, while humanities and social science research
is vital for contextualizing the outcomes of these games and pro-
viding a deeper understanding of ensuing phenomena. Through
strengthened collaboration and communication between these di-
verse communities, we can achieve a more holistic picture of games
and games research.
5 POTENTIAL FUTURE DIRECTIONS
In this section, we use the previously outlined dierences/considerations
to present pros and cons for a few dierent approaches that could
be taken to address future directions of games research. This is
not an exhaustive or denitive list of approaches, but instead is
used to provide examples of how the preliminary considerations of-
fered in this paper can be utilized to brainstorm ideas and facilitate
5.1 Creation of a Subject (Games Research)
If a primary concern we wish to address moving forward is lack
of a shared body of writing, one option is the creation of a Subject
Repository (SR) for games research. Existing examples include arXiv
for physics disciplines, the Social Science Research Network (SSRN),
and Research Papers in Economics (RePEc). SRs provide an open
access approach to archiving papers at a variety of stages, ranging
from preprint working papers and submitted manuscripts to post-
print accepted manuscripts and published articles [
]. Through cir-
culation at an early (preprint) stage, authors are able to receive and
incorporate comments into the nal paper version before publica-
tion, while postprint work provides complete and eshed out ideas
in a more central and publicly accessible forum. Such an approach
would create a central location for sharing games research, address
technical communities’ needs for rapid dissemination of work, and
address humanities and social science communities’ needs for early
idea formulation and discussion. However, SRs do not provide the
peer review of traditional venues and therefore cannot verify the
legitimacy or relevance of presented work to other academic dis-
]. Furthermore, it is unlikely that scholars will archive
portions or all of their books, which could exclude a large amount of
research occurring in humanities and social science communities.
5.2 Merge Existing Conferences?
Another possible direction for games research is to merge existing
venues to create broader and more interdisciplinary reach. This
was recently initiated with the 1st international joint conference of
DiGRA and FDG, which notably separated after just one year. It is
possible that this divergence highlights the diculty of combining
two epistemologically distinct communities, due to the dierences
in research practice previously noted in this paper. We assert that
any future merged venues will need to strongly consider the funda-
mental epistemic dierences between games research disciplines
when it comes to idea formulation/discussion and publication prac-
tices, as these ultimately aect peer review and the perceived quality
of accepted research.
A variety of approaches could be taken to address the humanities
and social science communities’ need to present, discuss, and formu-
late early stage work at conferences, while balancing the technical
communities’ need for rigorous peer review and quality conference
publications. In the loosest sense of “merge”, conferences could be
co-located to share organizational logistics and space but remain
separate for peer review and presentations (similar to SIGGRAPH’s
). This would maintain existing review and con-
ference standards for both communities, but could also somewhat
undermine the intent for stronger communication and collabora-
tion by separating everything other than shared space. Another
approach would be for both communities to mutually adopt some
of the other’s practices. One example could be through a shift in
conference review process to that of an accelerated journal review
for technical communities (aording further rigor and more dis-
cussion between reviewers and authors), while having a stronger
adoption of idea formulation/discussion through extended abstracts
in the form of poster presentations and workshops for the human-
ities and social science communities. However, this still requires
acceptance of changes to the status quo for rigor and publication
practices within scholars’ home disciplines, which in itself presents
numerous additional challenges.
FDG’17, August 14-17, 2017, Hyannis, MA, USA Edward Melcer and Katherine Isbister
5.3 Conference with Journal-Integrated Model?
Considering that journals are the primary form of overlap in terms
of peer review and acceptance for most communities, another fea-
sible approach would be for a conference to adopt a more journal-
centric publication model; as this would help bridge communica-
tion/collaboration needs and review quality. One existing example
of this is DiGRA’s conference-rst model where “best” conference
papers are invited for submission to the ToDiGRA journal. However,
this does not directly impact the quality of papers presented at the
venue since it does not inuence the conference peer review process.
Conversely, in a journal-integrated model, conferences oer an ad-
ditional form of submission that is similar to the journal review
process with author revision and re-review by the same reviewers as
well as post-event acceptance in the journal (e.g., SIGGRAPH/TOG
and CHI/TOCHI). While this does provide an additional avenue
of communication and rigor for all communities, it also does not
address the issues of idea formulation/discussion and quality in
other forms of submission (e.g., full paper, short paper, etc.). Those
would require separate considerations and adjustments through
other changes to a venue’s structure.
6 LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE WORK
We are inherently limited in the breadth and generalizability of
our claims due to the small number of experts interviewed and
resulting inability to analyze every community situated within
games research. However, while the insights presented here may
not map perfectly to every community conducting games research,
these ndings can serve as an entry point for a larger conversation
around the future direction of games research. E.g., if we seek
to improve communication within games research, how should
we structure it in a way that addresses the complex and varied
needs of its many dierent disciplines? We hope the considerations
presented here can help to serve as a discussion point and initial
guide for next steps concerning these complex issues.
For future work, we plan to utilize surveys in order to more easily
reach a larger number of games research communities and provide
a more comprehensive picture of epistemic dierences/needs.
The authors would like to thank the scholars who kindly volun-
teered their time to participate in interviews. We would also like to
thank everyone in the Social Emotional Technology lab at UCSC
for their valuable time and feedback on this work.
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