January 22, 2005

Children’s Lit, Comp Sci, and Games

by Nick Montfort · , 6:57 pm

In the latest IGDA Ivory Tower column, two University of Florida doctoral students call for an interdisciplinary approach to game studies – specifically, connecting children’s literature studies and video game studies. The authors are prolific digital media scholar Laurie Taylor and Cathlena Martin, who works with children’s literature and digital media.

I think they should go for it. A strong research result that comes from children’s lit + video game studies is exactly what would persuade me of the value of this combination.

Their proposal doesn’t seem to offer the clearest scenario showing the value of interdisciplinarity, though…


In the column, two scholars, both from the same English department, discuss how two of their research areas relate. They seem to be considering fields that are defined by their objects of study rather than by their approaches or methodologies. Semiotics, narratology, cultural studies, textual studies, and ethnography, for example, seem to me to be approaches or methodologies, while children’s literature seems to involve several approaches to a defined set of texts. (I’ve only taken one class in children’s fiction, so I could be wrong here, but I don’t think there is a single system of methods associated with it.) I suppose I would consider that bringing one new approach to bear on some digital media objects (e.g., narratology + interactive fiction by itself) is novel but not particularly interdisciplinary, while bringing several new and different approaches to bear might be. What definitely seems interdisciplinary is the development of a whole new approach by analogy to earlier ones from different fields: Cybertext and Computers as Theater provide two of several examples in new media. To reach outside new media, the development of Centering Theory, a theory of local coherence in discourse, provides a clear example of interdisciplinary work: the major work on it was done by a computer scientist, philosophers, and a linguist, using approaches and techniques from their different fields.

I’m curious, too, about Taylor and Martin’s assertion that

game studies rests more comfortably in computer science programs … computer science focus[es] more heavily on applied research and production … rather than theoretical and analytical research found more strongly in humanities programs.

First, where are the game studies programs that are situated comfortably in computer science programs? Honestly – please tell me!

I think I’m the closest thing to a game studies scholar in Penn’s CIS department, and often, when I go to present about games at conferences – for instance, Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticsm at Princeton and Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling at UCLA, both of which Taylor also attended and presented at – I seem to be the only computer scientist on the program. When that isn’t the case, it’s because Michael is there at the conference. Although, the majority share of Michael is now associated with LCC (where his office is) rather than the College of Computing, so while he’s a computer scientist, he’s not really currently situated in a CS program himself.

Second, how does (academic) computer science focus heavily on “applied research and production” and lack “theoretical and analytical research”? I can see how people might get this impression if they judge the discipline based on introduction to programming classes, which involve a lot of programming, even though these classes are not about applied research or production. But that’s like saying that if I only considered composition classes, I would get the impression that English departments are heavily focused on teaching people to write well. While there are subfields of CS that seem a bit more industrial and applied, the idea that there’s little “theoretical and analytical research” really makes little sense to me as a doctoral student in computer science. I’m doing such research, and am surrounded by people who are.

Now, computer science is concerned with results that have generality, not with the specificity of particular new media works, or cultures, or individuals. Because of that, I think there’s little reason to fear that CS will swallow game studies, and little hope that CS departments will provide much of a context for game studies researchers. But the discipline of computer science does have a lot to offer us as we try to understand creative computer programs, and as we study computer systems that enable interpersonal communication and virtual worlds. In terms of scholarship, the value of joining CS approaches with those from other disciplines is seen in Espen Aarseth’s work and Jesper Juul’s recent dissertation. In terms of pedagogy, Michael’s class provides the proof.

One barrier to interdisciplinary work in new media (of the sort seen in the development of Centering Theory) is the general unwillingness of new media scholars to collaborate. So, I do commend Taylor and Martin for writing their Ivory Tower column together, and I hope others follow their example of collaboration when they are seeking to understand how new approaches can be joined for use in new media.

8 Responses to “Children’s Lit, Comp Sci, and Games”


  1. Laurie Taylor Says:

    First, I think our column came across poorly. I base this on the fact that Nick rephrases our claim that computer science seems more interested with applied rather than theoretical work into that we’re claiming that computer science “lacks” or has “little” theory–we didn’t mean that at all and we apologize that it seems like we did. We meant that computer science does, as Nick states, focus more on “results that have generalities, not with the specificity of particular new media works, or cultures, or individuals.” I re-explain some of the column points below because I really don’t want our column to seem as a complaint against computer science in any way; especially since computer science approaches clearly benefit game studies, as seen by so many conferences, books, and blogs like this one.

    One interesting point about the confusion is that Nick’s comments seem to defend computer science (with the note that computer science won’t swallow game studies) in light of our column seeming to attack computer science. It often seems like there are fears of game studies being swallowed by one particular field or another. By aligning children’s literature and game studies, we were trying to argue that game studies has a place in, and needs many, fields. We certainly weren’t trying to state that one approach was better, only that multiple approaches are needed.

    For connections between children’s literature and game studies, there’s no single method for approaching children’s literature, but most of the methods used for children’s literature study the text or the context of the text’s production. While children’s literature is a young field and it’s rapidly growing, relatively little work has been done on the physical form of children’s literature texts (like the textures of the children’s books or the paratexts that include dolls in much the same way that Nintendo included the robot), and the culture of readers (although more studies are being done, especially in regards to Harry Potter Fan Fiction). Each of these aspects also parallels other fields, like general literary and film studies, but children’s literature is still a relatively young field, and it still has an odd place because it sometimes exists within English departments, Folklore Departments, and sometimes within Education departments. Game studies, in which we include game design classes, normally doesn’t have a single dedicated department, but exists in multiple fields. By including game design in game studies, game studies seems to have a stronger relationship to computer science and game design programs than humanities programs.

    To clarify some points that were clearly confusing in our column, by our statement:

    “Education departments most often house children’s literature studies, and game studies rests more comfortably in computer science programs. In both cases, the primary fields of education and computer science focus more heavily on applied research and production (either the production of games or teaching as production) rather than theoretical and analytical research found more strongly in humanities programs.”

    We were trying to draw a parallel between the fact that computer science (from what we’ve seen, and we certainly could be wrong) seems to focus more heavily on how to make things–making games, making games better, making games do certain things–and education tends to focus more on how to teach children’s books–which ones are best for what ages, to get children to learn about certain topics. This type of work requires analytical and theoretical research, but it’s generally (although not always) a different type of work than that done in humanities programs. We certainly didn’t mean that computer science and education aren’t theoretical or analytical (they have to be), but simply that their focus is different from that of humanities programs.

    Also, by including game design as part of game studies, computer science programs often include game design and in many game design programs that work more heavily with computer science (and often fine arts) than with the humanities in general. Our column was aimed at encouraging the humanities in game studies, especially in terms of ways that benefit other areas like children’s literature studies.

  2. Laurie Taylor Says:

    This form doesn’t seem to want to take all of my comments, so I’m posting the full comments on Academic Gamers.

  3. nick Says:

    Whoops – even though I didn’t see any names of prescription drugs in your comment, it somehow got caught and sent to the moderation queue. Sorry about that; I approved it and will reply in a moment…

  4. Tom Apperley Says:

    While the potential for creative collaboration is virtually endless. Nick is right to point out it needs really to be done rather than speculated. However, speculation is required in the process in order to get the collaboration off the ground. This requires the engaging in dialogue on the approaches to the theory and analysis that the two disciplines need and negotiations about what will work to keep the new collaboration within (at least partially) the collaborators respective fields.

    The idea of collaborating with children’s literature people has appealled to me, but no one I know will touch it with a barge pole, partially because I think that they see the study of children’s literature as ‘shoring up’ a practice that is endangered by childrens use of new media. In this respect I’m glad that other have created, and are ebcouraging, networks which will allow this collaboration to be explored.

  5. nick Says:

    Laruie, I don’t think your column came across poorly. Your and Cathlena’s mention of computer science and game studies was not a central point of the column, but given Michael’s recent post on here and my own academic situation, it was the one I thought I’d discuss. I see the analogy between the institutional situation of game studies and children’s literature studies. I also certainly agree about multiple approaches, and I think you and Cathlena should pursue research that brings together game studies and children’s literature, as I said. But of course you don’t really need my encouragement there, so, on to computer science…

    I agree that “computer science … seems to focus more heavily on how to make things” than do the humanities. But the full story on this involves why computer science researchers make things. Economists and physicists also write a lot of computer programs, but I think it’s very misleading to characterize either of those disciplines, or computer science, as being about making computer programs. In all three disciplines, researchers make computer programs in order to gain fundamental insights and get research results. It’s really the same basic reason that humanists “make” narratological models or, for that matter, develop text-encoding standards – as a means to doing inquiry and understanding more. I agree that the means of conducting research varies between CS and the humanities – as it does within the humanities – but I think there is a common focus, which is inquiry.

    Now, you may be right that computer science, when it is involved in game studies or game design education, is production-oriented to a fault. However, computer science is hardly involved at all, as far as I can tell. (I do want those examples – anyone, please!) And you could level the same criticisms at many art school programs and humanities-based programs, if you were going to look only at how these disciplines or traditions engaged video games in existing curricula.

    Although I wouldn’t list a tendency to make things as a negative for computer science, I certainly can think of ways in which CS is less suitable than the humanities for a deep understanding of video games and other new media works:

    • - Ahistorical, unless you consider occasional engineering anecdotes to be history
    • - Focus on maximizing objective functions
    • - Lack of interest in all artistic, literary, cultural, and social aspects

    But these things are only really a problem inasmuch as they inhibit collaborations and limit the scope of what computer scientists will study. They don’t keep the disciplinary approach of CS from helping us out as we try to learn about new media, any more than narratology prevents me from understanding the prosody (as well as the narrative qualities) of a long poem, because narratology is a theory that is silent about prosody. And when every other discipline has “does not yet account for how computer programs work” listed as a negative, I think it’s particularly important to bring CS into the mix.

  6. hanna Says:

    I apologise for being somewhat off-topic here, but I think disagree with you on a couple of your characteristics of computer science, Nick.

    I don’t believe the computer science particularly focuses on maximising objective functions. While I agree that there is considerable focus on objectivity — much more so than in the humanities — I think that think it’s misleading to refer to this as a focus on objective functions. Granted, there are sub-disciplines of computer science that are very concerned with making things faster, smaller etc. (namely, systems and architecture), but a much of computer science research does not share this focus. For example, in computer graphics, researchers (at least presently) are concerned with realism. A typical graphics project might be “how can we make the movement of skirts more realistic in computer games,” which, in my view, is no more of an objective function than “how does narratology inform video game research.” Objective functions (and optimization problems) are about finding the “best” solution to some problem — I don’t see that there can be one “best” solution when considering simulation realism, any more than there can be one best solution when asking questions like “are games art?” Considering more traditional areas of computer science also, we might look at programming languages research, where there is study of the formal properties and design of new programming languages, but again, I’m not sure what the objective function would be. Finally, in algorithms — one of the most traditional computer science disciplines — the majority of research is concerned with proving the properties of algorithms and making formal statements about these properties, not about optimizing them.

    Secondly, I disagree with your assertion of a “lack of interest in all artistic, literary, cultural, and social aspects” in computer science. Again, looking to graphics, I don’t believe that a field so concerned with human perception, interpretation and realism be considered to be disinterested in artistic, cultural and social aspects. Similarly, human-computer interaction is by definition focused on cultural and social concerns. And, of course, computational linguistics — while being rather dry at times — is very much concerned with variances in language usage, which often occur for social and cultural reasons.

  7. Laurie Taylor Says:

    I’m not sure what you’re looking for in game studies programs, but places that I would consider game studies or game-studies and CS related are:

    UC Irvine’s Game Culture and Tech Lab

    UCF’s Digital Media Design Program

    MIT’s Media Lab

    Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen

    The Art Institute of California – San Francisco

    UF’s Worlds Institute (a combination of CS and Fine Arts)

    and others.

    Also, you mention that CS programs tend to be have a “Lack of interest in all artistic, literary, cultural, and social aspects.” I think I’m conflating computing work/culture and CS departments because when I think of CS, I think of Open Source (the writings on which seem to be very historicized and aware of social implications); and Perl (also very aware of literary, cultural, and social connections with Perl poetry, leet culture in terms of elegant and concise code, and much more); and even training handbooks like The UNIX System Administrators Handbook (which is very aware of UNIX history, evolution of technology, and includes images and jokes; the naming conventions alone on most programs and servers seem to embed this sort of historization/culture with Kerberos and majordomo). I don’t really know what CS departments do, so I imagine them as doing work like Don Norman’s, Espen Aarseth’s, and Tim O’Reilly’s (even though he’s not in academia).

  8. nick Says:

    Laurie, first off–

    you mention that CS programs tend to be have a “Lack of interest in all artistic, literary, cultural, and social aspects.”

    No, I didn’t say that. My three bullet points about CS are about the disciplinary approach, not the programs and certainly not the people in the departments.

    Hanna, computational linguistics is, of course, an interdiscipline, and its linguistic concerns are not part of the approach of computer science per se. HCI is also an interdiscipline, as the mission statement on the CMU HCI Institute page explains. I think to the extent they don’t fit my three properties of CS, it is due to the involvement of other disciplines.

    In computer graphics, you may have projects to do a variety of things, and sometimes the goal may be vague from a formal perspective: “make things look more realistic.” This is still optimization measured by some vague function, and there is no approach from computer science that tells us what realism is.

    Algorithms and PL have desiderata (e.g., convergence, type safety) which are not subject to any sort of sociological critique, and efforts are made to mathematically demonstrate those desiderata. This process is just optimization over a discrete space. In some cases we are concerned with the analysis of the properties of existing systems rather than improving those systems – e.g., prove type safety for some model of Java. These may be the efforts that are closest to literary analysis in some ways. But when we are done proving what the properties of those systems are, you can be sure that we’re going to turn around and try to develop another system that improves on that one.

    You mention systems and architecture, but of course in the area we work in, machine learning, the involvement of computer science very much deals with maximizing objective functions.

    I should make it clear that I don’t mean these statements as any sort of criticism of CS in general, only as a comment on the applicability of that disciplinary approach to new media. Mathematics is ahistorical, too, for instance; so what.

    Laurie, to get back to your comments: I was pleased to note the involvement of CS in some of these programs, but it seems like none of them are actually situated within a computer science department – am I wrong?

    The MIT Media Lab (where I did a Masters) is within the School of Architecture, and has no institutional relationship to CS. The Art Institute of San Francisco does not even have a computer science department – in fact, the phrase “computer science” does not occur anywhere on their site. ITU’s Center for Computer Games Research is part of the Department of Digital Aesthetics and Communication, and is not under CS.

    The two others on the list show some CS involvement. UCI’s Game Culture & Technology Lab has lots of faculty participation from CS, but it is directed by someone from studio art, and doesn’t seem to rest within a CS program. UF has a multi-department Digital Media Design program (as we do here at Penn) which is a production-oriented undergraduate program with CS as one player. (The last link in the list is to the multi-department institute that houses that program.) If you broaden “game studies” to include this, there’s some CS presence and sharing of the administration of the program. I see the motivation for programs like that, but I’d certainly like to see the involvement of CS also going to build something like Espen’s Center for Computer Games Research, somewhere.

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