Written by Mark Johnson, 3rd Yr PhD Student.
At the end of May I attended the “Canadian Game Studies Association” conference in Toronto thanks to the department’s generous funding. The conference was part of the larger "Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences", a yearly Canadian conference which consists of many smaller components. As an ex-professional card player and independent game developer in my spare time, I’m seeking to move my academic studies in the same direction upon completion of my doctorate and this was part of that move.
The conference was over two days and perhaps eighty or ninety people turned up in total; there were a number of talks including a fascinating discussion of the difficulties of writing “video game history” in a medium so replete with hacks, mods, bootlegs and international versions; subcultures devoted to the appreciation of games commonly considered to be of no redeeming value; the use of death as a core mechanic in many games; the definition of “genre” in games and whether clear definitions of the formal characteristics of game genres are even possible to create; the use of various types of games in learning environments for children and teenagers; the “surveillance architecture” of the Xbox 360; and many others.
My talk was on the semiotics of “roguelikes”, a niche genre of games originating around 1980 which even now almost universally eschew modern graphics for an appearance of a game focused around text. This means that walls, floors and all foes and items are represented by ASCII characters, such as ‘#’ (often walls), ‘]’ (often pieces of armour) or ‘$’ (often piles of money).
My paper first explored the ways in which these symbols develop epistemes unique to each game and show that they demand forms of knowing that players have to be “trained” to comprehend. Secondly it explained how these symbolic choices create conventions and paradigms specific to each game and what these forms of categorization mean for the player’s understanding of what is on screen. Thirdly and lastly, this paper sought to build on earlier work on “reading” games, the relationship of this act to the semiotics of games, and argues that in this regard the act of reading a roguelike, and the significance of the symbols within the game, are unique. I now hope to build this paper up into a full journal article and continue pursuing my game studies metamorphosis.
Many thanks again to the department for the funding without which I wouldn’t have been able to attend – it was an amazing conference and I look forward to many more.