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Towards a Historical Poetics of Game Mechanics

Electronic and digital games have a short history, which has been far too neglected in academic research. This is about to change. Internationally there is an increasing interest in game history, and a raising awareness of the need to develop relevant methods and to historicise terminology and technology. There seem to be three major challenges that have to be met: questions concerning archiving and researching machines and programming languages no longer in use; how to understand particular forms of development and production processes over time and around the world; aesthetic changes in relation to hardware, software, gamers, other media and art forms etc. Game studies in general, and game history in particular, may have a lot to learn from the early cinema history research of the 1980s and 1990s, in terms of redefinitions of the objects of study, discovering unexpected uses of media technologies, and probably most importantly, unveiling surprising relations to other cultural, technological, economical, political, and artistic contexts. Since early cinema research was not only a remarkable archival enterprise, but often a theoretically advanced and creative field as well, it has the potential to provide the basis for pragmatic models for studying the principles according to which electronic and digital games are, and have been, constructed. Thus I aim at using David Bordwell’s poetics of cinema (focusing on particulars, patterns, purposes, principles, practices, processing) to research electronic and digital games. To follow David Bordwell’s argument that a poetics of cinema “is characterized by the phenomena it studies” and “the question it asks about those phenomena” (Poetics of Cinema, p. 23), will lead to the key characteristic of games – the means by which the person playing the game is interacting with the game system and its rules – that is, the game mechanics. Consequently, I aim at a historical poetics of game mechanics.

My way of researching the principles according to which games have been made is part game analysis, part reconstruction, and part speculative design practice. Traversing these three fields are three analytical-creative practices: game writing, interaction design, media archaeology. Researching game writing is a genuinely interdisciplinary task where a combination of practice-based research and the humanities open up for new knowledge, through analytic creative practice, ethnographic methods of observation and interviews. Textual analysis and contextual studies are furthermore required in order to reach conclusions that are relevant for both research and industry. Researching interaction design as part of the historical poetics of game mechanics involves exploration and development of different tools and methods for interactive cultural research as well as speculative ‘tinkering’ with existing mechanics. Researching media archaeology in this context includes studies of different platforms and programming languages, as well as building new analytical platforms in order to test the limits of existing and potential mechanics.

The project starts with three case studies: a pedagogical-industry collaboration development project, a digital humanities-inspired spatial-affective experiment, and an archaeological study.

1. Given the lack of public artistic development resources and meeting places for experimental writing for interactive media, compared to other arts like music, theatre, visual art, design or film, an analytic environment where students and scholars from the humanities, computer science and the arts can work with film, television and game practitioners in an open but still research-based environment could be a most fruitful way both to enhance knowledge of game writing and to develop industrial and artistic practice. Building on the model of a speculative writers’ room I aim at developing this further as a collaborative research method. Students, researchers and practitioners write and analyse their own collaborative writing in relation to other modes of writing (of legal texts, construction manuals, art criticism, poetry, music, mathematic formulas, software) together with scripts for film, television and games. The project is primarily taking place within the master level courses Script Analysis and Applied Text Theories, and by way of the development of the new bachelor’s programme Media, Aesthetics, and Cultural Entrepreneurship, and in collaboration with Collaboratory makerspace (www.collaboratory.cc)

2. To understand the historical development of game mechanics we need to find new ways to explore how people interact with technologies. Humanities research can learn a lot from research on human-computer interaction and interaction design, but there are some research questions that need to be treated within a humanities context. Many interactive projects within the field of Digital Humanities tend to be focused on methods and tools for either quantitative data mining, or visualisations or other forms for presenting results of scholarly work. Different forms of artistic research as well as critical archive studies look at cognitive, physical and affective analyses of researchers interaction with their tools, objects of investigation, and research environment. This case study is looking at game mechanics by way of researchers’ physical and virtual interaction with early 20th century theatre source material. This case study is made in collaboration with Dr. Astrid von Rosen.

3. In 1978 Swedish electronics manufacturer Luxor presented a new home computer, called ABC 80 (“Advanced Basic Computer”), aimed at homes, schools, and offices. The ABC 80 computer was manufactured in more than 30,000 units, many of them were sold to schools. Its popularity may be explained by a large number of office programmes in Swedish, but also the easy-to-use BASIC version adapted to the ABC 80 which opened up for creative programming practices. Consequently, a significant number of people who were between 10 and 20 years old during the early 1980s learned how to use a computer and how to create programmes (in BASIC). Later successes of the Commodore 64, the IBM PC and others have overshadowed the ABC 80 even in the (rudimentary) Swedish computer history. This case study aims at studying the ABC 80 as a technical platform for creative computing, by creating digital tools for researching the limits of what interaction was possible.

A secondary aim infusing all three case studies revolves around what could be labelled game engine politics, the importance of performing political analyses of (consequences of) game engines and other tools for interaction. It is, or should be, rather obvious that what the researcher as well as the game developer and the person playing the game can do and is prevented from doing could also be a political question.

Project leader: Mats Björkin
Project duration: 2017–2022
Funding: The Faculty of Arts

Contact Information

Mats Björkin

PO Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Visiting Address:
Renströmsgatan 6 , 41255 Göteborg

+46-(0)31-786 5333

Page Manager: Felicia Bigot Klinteberg|Last update: 2/12/2018

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