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Games Aren't Special

Mia Consalvo (Concordia University)

Game studies has successfully plucked video games out of their habitat (read: life), pinned them onto a dissecting tray, and cut them apart. We have poked and prodded at gamers (rather than people) to discover their habits, interests, practices, and predilections. We are now well versed in at least some aspects of how games are created, and how their mechanics, visuals, story lines, and characters come together into complex representations. We have made sense of those who play games heavily, including how toxicity forms a troubling aspect of game culture, as well as how diversity is still an issue in who plays, how often, and how they are treated by others when they do so. And we have a growing sense of how these things vary across a few—but not enough—regions around the world.

What we haven’t done so well is investigate the everydayness, the boring, and the banal, of how video games are part of lived reality in cities, towns, villages, and the countryside in the North, the South, and every place in between. What has happened to those old but still functioning PlayStation 2 and Wii consoles? Are people still playing them in ways that aren’t retro? Where are the stories of video game stores, game-rental services, and other distribution venues outside of Steam or Amazon? Instead, we have focused on the exceptional stories such as the 1 percent of content creators who have built fabulous mods that became commercial game releases. We carefully tell the stories of elaborate cheating practices in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), and the players who spend hours building hacks and bots that can enhance as well as detract from play.

Imagine if instead we sought ways to reach the people who downloaded a game onto their phone, ran it once, were unimpressed, and then never tried it again? Or if we studied how people move among apps on their smart phones, games being just one among many? We could visit homes in a variety of countries to investigate where game hardware sits, how often it actually gets used, and what other media (and activities) it competes with.

Additionally, our knowledge of how games are made is drawn from a few AAA studios and a growing number of smaller indie developers. Yet we have mostly focused on well-known designers and very popular (or critically lauded) games as starting (and ending) points. Where are the in-depth studies of junior programmers, interface designers, and public-relations workers? Likewise, we continue to talk about the game industry as if it is monolithic, and likewise as if game studios speak with a single voice about every issue. Finally, how do game workers make sense of what they do within their larger career spans? What about the developers who quit within five to ten years? How about those who worked at companies that failed?

Investigating even a few of these questions would provide us with a more interesting, more inclusive history of games. Asking the smaller questions, about the mundane elements of games, from their acquisition and use to their eventual disposal, can offer us a rich and far more diverse history than the one we have so far. Seeing how games are part of living rooms, the rhythms of our days, our commutes, and our budgeting is important to understand. Studying how these pieces have come together now and in the past is an exciting challenge for game studies even if the topic might seem—at first blush—to be boring.