DiGRA Hardcore 18: Diane Carr on Textual Analysis

In the latest installment of the DiGRA Hardcore Column, Diane Carr discusses the role textual analysis can and should play in the study of videogames. Her column, "Un-Situated Play? Textual Analysis and Digital Games," responds specifically to some implications of the DiGRA 2007 call for papers and more generally to the emphasis on structuralist approaches within the field. The value of textual analysis is something that I, as a grad student in an English department, have long taken for granted, so it is refreshing to read Carr's succinct and compelling argument in its favor. In a nutshell, Carr is arguing that we should not dismiss textual analysis for its shortcomings, but rather embrace the strengths that it does offer for understanding games as sites of meaning production.

One such apparent dismissal is typified in the DiGRA CFP:

A digital game is an extremely complex aesthetic, social and technological phenomenon. Games are not isolated entities that one can effectively study in vitro. Games are situated in culture and society. To truly understand the phenomenon of digital games, it is not enough to merely study the games themselves or short-term impacts as described by laboratory experiments -- these are only part of the story.

While this does acknowledge some role for textual analysis, it's clear from the conference theme ("Situated Play") that the real story of videogames is their involvement with culture. Carr does well to point out the error in this alleged distinction: studying games as artifacts of textual production is far from a-political. It does involve an understanding of the cultural and technological ecologies which sustain the artifact, and close readings of individual games can tell us something about culture, society, the human condition, etc.

Carr uses Barthes as her focal point for defining textual analysis, but there are other possibilities as well. For example, my research is very much a textual approach, but I take inspiration from the Textual Studies approach as performed by such scholars as Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker. In this approach, the material "situatedness" of a text (or videogame) is of central concern, so it would not be fair to criticize it for isolating its objects of study.

Ultimately, Carr is arguing for balance, and that's probably what the DiGRA CFP authors would agree with as well. While one could well argue that there is a predominance of structuralist scholarship on videogames, I don't think there is a critical shortage of textual approaches either. Certainly, there is plenty of work to do, but I don't think it's yet the case that someone (like me) offering game research based on textual analysis is going to be shunned or have a hard time finding venues.

What do you think? Is Diane Carr stating the case too strongly here, or is there really a need to correct the balance?

For more on textual studies and videogames, Steven Jones has a forthcoming (2008) book from Routledge entitled The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies. I'm looking forward to it.

The place of textual analysis in game studies

Hi Zach,

I think this is a great topic to discuss, especially for those of us approaching game studies from academic areas whose primary focus is not game studies. I've often asked myself just how appropriate is it to apply theories of language and texts to computer games. Through some discussions with my professors, I've come to believe that, though not all theories of language and texts are applicable, some are broad enough in their scope, or speak on essential aspects of communication, interaction and motivation that they can be appropriately and successfully applied to events occurring in the process of playing computer games.

I've only received support and genuine interest in my efforts to examine computer games through theories of language, rhetoric, and spatial studies. Perhaps Ms. Carr is responding to some personal experience. I feel that the game studies community that I've had the pleasure to meet with are all very open and inquisitive people who would welcome any intelligent, well researched approach to game studies.