The construction of video games studies in British Higher Education

Marcus Leaning, University of Winchester

The study of computer games is now a legitimate part of the undergraduate portfolio in a number of academic fields (Boellstorff, 2006). Previous accounts of games studies have examined how the subject has evolved through a number of conferences, the publication of certain key texts and the formation of academic associations (Eskelinen, 2004). This history has described a tension between how gam...


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The fourth ADM-HEA Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Prize was presented at the MeCCSA annual conference, this year held at University of Bedfordshire (11 – 13 January 2012).

The prize, for the best paper analyzing key issues impacting on media, communications and cultural studies higher education, was awarded to Dr Marcus Leaning, Acting Head of Department of the School of Media and Film at the University of Winchester. We are delighted to publish the paper here.

Keywords: Games Studies; computer and video games, British university, media education


The study of computer games is now a legitimate part of the undergraduate portfolio in a number of academic fields (Boellstorff, 2006). Previous accounts of games studies have examined how the subject has evolved through a number of conferences, the publication of certain key texts and the formation of academic associations (Eskelinen, 2004). This history has described a tension between how games studies emerged from a number of other disciplines such as computer science, film and literary studies and how these subjects were seeking to ‘colonize’ games studies (Aarseth, 2001). Other commentary has described a key debate between the advocates of narrative and ludic qualities of games (Frasca, 2003). 

This paper offers an alternate description of the subject and presents findings of a project examining the emergence and codification of the field from a teaching and learning perspective. The method used here is founded upon the proposal that an academic discipline is constructed and articulated not only in research but through its teaching to undergraduates. As such this research presents descriptive rather than normative information on the field; this paper relates what is taught in the field of games studies rather than what should be taught according to particular theoretical positions.

Presented here are the methodology and findings the project. Results from this study indicate: there is a general agreement on that certain topics are integral to the field of games studies; that there is a ‘long tail’ of topics which are only partially considered relevant; that there are several substantive issues and interesting omissions in what is taught.


If we agree with Henry Jenkins (2000) computer and video games now constitute an ‘art form of the digital age’ and have been regarded as a major cultural form for some years now (Gee, 2006). Accordingly they constitute an important if somewhat neglected area of media education (Adams & Burke, 2009).

In the UK the study of computer games at undergraduate level occurs in a number of different disciplinary fields. In addition to the significant number of undergraduate degrees dedicated solely to the study and production of computer games, computer or video games also appear as discreet units within degree courses in fields such as computer science, digital media production and media studies. This paper details initial findings of a project examining the construction of games as a field of study in British and Northern Irish higher education within the social sciences, arts and humanities. The study of computer games constitutes a relatively new field of academic enquiry and is currently in its early stages of evolution and refinement. This paper commences with an overview of the types of institution offering courses in games. It then examines how one sub-field; games from within the arts, humanities and social sciences, can be understood as being constituted through key teaching publications. Finally it raises a number of issues regarding the constitution of the field.

The study of games in British and Northern Irish Higher Education 

Computer and video games are studied in a variety of different ways with the Universities and Colleges Applications Service website indicating that there are currently 226 courses from 79 institutions on offer for entry in 2012 (UCAS, 2011). This number can be contrasted with 3658 Business courses from 222 institutions, 1595 Media courses from 164 institutions and 93 Classics courses from 12 institutions (UCAS, 2011).

While the number of games courses is comparatively small it masks a rich mix of courses and course providers. The majority of courses are technically based and aimed at students aspiring to work in the games industry. Here attention focuses upon the development of skills and knowledge used in the production of games such as the various technical programming disciplines (including aspects such as the production of various game engines, interface production and testing); the writing of the game story; game and level design; artistic and graphic competencies used in creating the visual aspects; the authoring and production of various sound effects and in-game music; and various project oversight and other management functions. These courses are available in a very wide range of institutions including franchise arrangements offered in further education colleges, large post-1992 institutions and members of the Russell Group.

Figure 1, produced from data drawn from the UCAS website (2011), illustrates the composition of the market of undergraduate games courses by the type of institution. While older / traditional universities (Russell Group, Redbrick and Plate Glass institutions) do offer courses, it is the Post-1992 institutions that make up the greatest part of the market of universities offering courses.

Figure 1: Percentages of all Computer Games courses offered by type of institution.
Figure 1. Percentages of all Computer Games courses offered by type of institution.

In addition to the technical aspects of games a further area of academic enquiry is the study of games from a variety of humanities and social scientific perspectives. UCAS does not identify these courses as the study of games on such courses is substantive and tends to be at a constituent or module level rather than the disciplinary field or paradigm (such as English Literature, Media Studies, or Sociology) used in the title and description of the degree subject. Unless prospectuses are consulted the games elements of these courses remain hidden. A brief and unsystematic study of web pages detailing the modules and subjects studied on various media studies and related degrees reveals that there are (at least) a further 42 undergraduate degrees where games are studied as distinct modules within subject based degrees such as media studies, sociology and cultural studies.

In such courses attention focuses upon the game texts, the games industry, the audience and the impact and understanding of gaming. Within this approach there is considerable inter-disciplinary disagreement as to the appropriate focus of enquiry. This disagreement is rooted in the different approaches to the social world and texts found across the arts, humanities and social sciences. For example there is a significant body of research from a psychological perspective that seeks to study the impact of games upon audiences (Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007). While authors such as Gentile (2011) propose that effects accounts are simplistic, media and cultural studies researchers argue that to identify and vilify single cultural texts is very problematic and the topic has a considerable history in media studies (Potter, 2003; Trend, 2007).

A discernable consequence of this inter-disciplinary disagreement has been a number of attempts to specify what the subject of games studies should be. This resulted in a further disagreement between scholars over key issues and terms of reference. Furthermore, the various methodological concerns and analytic tools of the different originating disciplines also resulted in disagreement concerning the best way to study games. As Perron and Wolf (2008), Aarseth (1997) and Rutter and Bryce (2006) argue, games can be studied from many different academic perspectives and there are innumerable approaches and debates. Considerable problems emerged with the application of analytic techniques that are historically accepted within one discipline, such as film or literary studies being applied to new texts such as games (Frasca, 2003).

One consequence of these two ‘fracture lines’ – the difference between practically orientated, production courses and those of a more theoretical and critical engagement – and the conflict between differing academic traditions within the humanities and social scientific approaches to games – is the significant number of texts concerned with what ought to be studied within games studies. Thus there have been several attempts to provide a remit for the study of games (Corliss, 2011; Eskelinen, 2004; Gee, 2006; Malaby, 2007) or a manifesto for a particular form of study of games (Pinchbeck, 2010).

This paper offers an alternate perspective. The intention here is not to offer a fresh view of what should be studied. Rather presented here is a systematic study of what is studied as articulated through textbooks aimed at undergraduate students. Through examining the contents of a range of textbooks the intention is to highlight that there is an emerging body of topics that are considered (at least by the authors and publishers of the books examined) to be central to the academic study of computer games. While research produced by academics and disseminated at conferences, through journal articles, book chapters and monographs constitute a ‘high-end’ of a field of study it is contended that the textbooks and contents of modules for undergraduate teaching offer an equally valid and very useful way of studying the discipline. Presented here is an analysis of how the field of games is articulated in textbooks. The intent is not to dictate what it is we should teach or study, rather it is to describe what is currently being studied by undergraduate students. 


This paper considers eight key texts used in the teaching of Games Studies to undergraduate students on humanities and social science courses. The texts analysed are:

  • Carr, Buckingham, Burn and Schott (2006)
  • Dovey and Kennedy (2006)
  • Egenfeldt, Smith and Tosca (2008)
  • Hjorth (2011)
  • Mayra (2008)
  • Newman (2004)
  • Newman and Oram (2006)
  • Rutter and Bryce (2006) 

The texts were selected using a wide search on a number of databases, (the British library Catalogue, Google books, and Bowker’s ‘Books in print’ book catalogue. From a substantial list of books produced by these searches eight of the texts were selected using six criteria: i) that the text be written in English; ii) that the text be a printed book or e-book and not a journal or serial publication or article in such; iii) that the books be written for courses in game analysis within the social sciences and humanities rather than games design and production, working in the games industry, the use of games in education and the psychological study of games (particularly effects studies); iv) that the books be introductory textbooks rather than forms of research dissemination; v) that the books be written for an undergraduate audience or just below; vi) that the books be academic and instructional and not journalistic or populist in nature.

All the books identified were previously known to the author and have been used in teaching. The texts were then subjected to a two-stage analysis.

Stage one involved noting all the key terms, chapter titles, sub-titles and topics of each text and compiling a master list of topics and descriptions of these topics.
Stage two involved checking the list against each text through the index to ensure that there were no missed occurrences. The rationale for inclusion at this juncture was that if an entry was simply mentioned without any substantive elaboration or discussion it would not be included. However if the entry consisted of a full examination perhaps spread across a number of pages then it would merit inclusion. Finding such missed instances occurred numerous times.


Figure 2 presents the information ordered by the number of incidents of the categories appearing in the eight texts examined. As can be seen, while no category appeared eight times, there were three categories that appeared seven times: consideration of ludic qualities, narrative theory and the rationale for and description of game studies and one category that appeared once: Agency.

Figure 2. Simple frequency distribution of category occurrence.
Figure 2. Simple frequency distribution of category occurrence.


Tentative and limited as it is, this information does provide a crude description of the field of game studies as formulated within textbooks intended for an undergraduate and below audience. Within these textbooks we find different opinions and judgments as to the shape, nature and theoretical orientation of games studies. Textbooks offer us a view of how the field is considered and thought of that is different to the cutting edge of research. The creation of a textbook simultaneously facilitates and structures the subject - the decisions of inclusion and exclusion made by authors, commissioning editors and pre-publication reviewers of text books both define and reflect the field.

Within many academic fields it is usual to find a distinct similarity in the areas covered by textbooks – this occurs not just because of an agreement as to what constitutes a field of study but also because of commercial reasons. Academic textbook publishing is an inherently conservative (yet highly profitable) industry – the investment required to produce a new textbook is considerable and publishers are often disinclined to produce a book that departs from a profitable formula. Consequently it is not surprising that there is a strong similarity in the topics covered – in spite of this, three key points can be discerned from the results presented here.

First, while there does seem to be a core of topics that appear in six - seven of the books there is also a ‘long tail’ – topics that only appear in one or two books. This would seem to indicate that while the field has a small agreed upon set of issues there is much yet to be decided upon and the field is by no means rigid and set. The relative young age of the field – the subject is understood to have emerged in the first years of the 21st century – mean that the codification of the discipline into a fixed set of topics, texts and issues has yet to occur. Indeed it may be considered healthy that such a young field of enquiry has a discrepancy in what constitutes the subject. It is the conflict and disagreement between perspectives and approaches that drives academic disciplines and results in fresh activity.
Second, the centrality of ludic and narrative issues (which occur in seven of the eight texts) is interesting. One explanation is that the debate between the two camps was so important that it has structured the field of games studies around it. While some authors dispute the importance or even the existence of the debate (Frasca, 2003), the conflict between those on either side was significant. Conflict arose between academics at a number of conferences in the early 2000s and in a number of instances the quite strident opinions were expressed as to the validity of different positions (Leaning, 2002). Moreover the debate between the narrative position and the ludological position was never fully resolved. Accordingly, while the debate seems rather ‘tired’ in contemporary times it does still present an issue. Furthermore, the underlying issue – whether existing analytic tools developed to understand one form of media can be used to examine new forms of media – has been reinvigorated in the Media Studies 2.0 debate (Merrin, 2009).

A third point of interest relates to the relatively low incidence of gender issues, which occur in only four texts. Considering the originating discursive frameworks of the humanities and social sciences and the problematic nature of gender and representation, a greater interest in this topic was expected and it is somewhat disappointing to see the topic being (relatively) ignored. Indeed it is one area where games studies can and has offered a distinctly useful critical position. Many of the observations offered by social scientific and humanities critically orientated academics have proven unpopular with games companies – such academics offer criticism not of how the games can be improved but in how issues of representation can be aligned to more progressive ideals. Industry has historically found such engagement problematic, unhelpful, and regarded it as having little commercial use (Southern, 2001). However there has been a concerted effort by games manufactures to widen the traditional market of games from a predominantly teenage and early twenties age male demographic to a one that includes a greater proportion of women and older players. This is furthered by attempts to position gaming consoles as systems of family entertainment and the emergence of casual gaming (Juul, 2009). Critically informed analysis of gender within games could, it may be argued, contribute to game texts with a greater appeal beyond the traditional audience.


The results presented here indicate that games studies has an emerging framework of enquiry. Two key issues pertinent to learning and teaching are evident. First, the decisions made in the production of textbooks that have resulted in the patterns noted above will have a consequence both upon how the subject evolves and what students learn in the academic field. This is particularly important when the issue of the lack of gender awareness (in the books) and the widely recognized problematic nature of the representation of women in the game texts is considered. Textbooks mediate, structure and reproduce academic fields. They shape student understanding of a subject and structure future debate in the field. If the ‘shape’ of the field is ‘problematic’ or lacking in particular areas of criticality then the future of the subject will at least to a degree replicate these aspects - today’s undergraduates are tomorrow’s research students and academics. Alternatively, the problematics of the field may dissuade more critically orientated students from engaging in research into the area.

A second issue relates to what the information gathered here can be used for. While purely descriptive, the information presented here does offer a particular view of the field. It articulates a particular perspective and while a decidedly ‘non-normative’ approach (the intent was to describe the field and [excepting the point above] not prescribe what the field should be), it is recognized that the description implicitly reinforces certain boundaries and structures in the field. However it does serve as a guide to charting where the field is now and provides a useful yardstick with which to plan a more progressive and strategic path for games studies within media education.


Dr Marcus Leaning is Acting Head of Department of the School of Media and Film at the University of Winchester. His teaching and research interests include various aspects of digital media theory, media education and academic literacy. He is the author / editor of four books and numerous journal articles and chapters.


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Header and listing photo: sourced from
Figures 1 and 2 supplied by M Leaning



Marcus Leaning, University of Winchester


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