A call for more precise game citations in games criticism

on Tuesday, March 17, 2015
In academic writing, citations of books, articles, films, and even webpages are usually fairly precise. Printed media is referred to by specific printing or edition, while webpages are usually specified by both URL and retrieval date (though the archiving of webpages is still an area in need of improvement). Most publications with electronic editions, such as academic journals, are even completely uniquely identified by their digital object identifier (DOI). Games criticism, too, usually follows these conventions at least moderately well. Peer-reviewed journals, such as Game Studies, usually follow something like APA style for their citations, which is fairly comprehensive in identifying books, articles, and the like. The increasingly-important critical discourse that takes place on blogs and gaming websites is naturally more varied, but usually URLs and book editions are provided.

Strangely, however, games themselves are rarely uniquely specified in citations. Take, for example, the citation guidelines for Game Studies (retrieved 2015-03-15). The most comprehensive possible citation for a game as described in the style guide must follow the format,
Developer. (Year). Title. [Platform], Release City and Country: Publisher, played month day, year, .
In practice, many Game Studies papers simplify this style, as in this example from an article by Paul Martin (2011, Game Studies, 11, 3):
Bethesda Game Studios. (2006). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. 2K Games.
I'll use this example throughout this post, but please note that I don't mean to pick on Martin or his excellent paper; I chose this example merely because it cites a game conducive to this discussion. This citation format is woefully inadequate for any critical or academic writing, but it is usually simplified even further outside of peer-review journals. Most game blogs and websites merely mention a game by name and leave it at that.

The above example of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is instructive as to why this citation format is a problem. Perhaps the most obvious issue is the lack of a version or platform specification. Naturally, the game varies among platforms for which the game was released, but issues such as patches make the problem far worse. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages identifies (retrieved 2015-03-15) at least six officially release patches for Oblivion. Other potential patches certainly exist, such as versions used internally at Bethesda Game Studios. These patches sometimes make changes that could potentially impact the arguments presented in Martin's article. The behavior of NPCs is modified in some cases, and the level of detail in the rendering of the environment is modified. Surely one could find even more severe examples of software updates having aesthetic consequences, now that many games are released to the public (and written about by critics) while still in early development, thanks to distribution platforms such as Steam's Early Access program.

Beyond just patches, Oblivion, like many games, allowed the player to purchase content that expands the software. Oblivion's most notable such expansion is The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, released in 2007. This expansion pack adds a new storyline, an entirely new region of the in-game world, numerous in-game items, many characters, and several tweaks to systems such as the user interface. Although originally released as an expansion, it was also bundled built-in with later editions of Oblivion. As Martin makes no citation to Shivering Isles, we must assume that the experiences he is writing about are based on the un-expanded Oblivion only, although given that he was writing years after the release of Shivering Isles, it seems far more likely that he was actually using one of the more common expanded versions.

Because Martin works at an English university and writes in English, it is perhaps safe to assume that he is referring the the original, English-language, unlocalized editions of Oblivion. If he were corresponding from a different university, however, this might not be obvious. Oblivion has a wide array of localizations, complete with translated text and different voice acting, both of which have aesthetic consequences. This problem can also affect games played in English, as many games, especially Japanese-developed ones, are localized for the Western markets. These games often have even more dramatic departures from their original versions than mere text translation and alternate voice acting. Yakuza 3 (dev. Sega, dir. Daisuke Sato, 2009), for example, saw many of its minigames removed (retrieved 2015-03-17) for Western localizations. Choice of localization can therefore have a substantial impact on the interpretation of a game. Just as criticism of literature would not refer to a translation without being very clear about what is being discussed, games criticism should not be ambiguous about the effects of the localization used by the critic.

We can take this further. Presumably, Martin is discussing only versions of Oblivion released directly through the publisher, 2K Games, but this is not necessarily true of all authors. Many games, including entries to franchises like The Elder Scrolls and The Sims, are heavily dependent on community-made modifications ("mods") to extend or patch the games. The Oblivion section of Nexus Mods (retrieved 2015-03-17) alone hosts over 26,000 mods for that game. These sorts of modifications can have nearly any effect imaginable, ranging from bug fixes to graphical enhancements to complete reworkings of the game. Even something as simple as a change to the graphical engine's rendering distance has a huge aesthetic impact on the player (for an extreme example, consider how a change to the fog distance in a game like Silent Hill (dev. Konami Computer & Entertainment Tokyo, dir. Keiichiro Toyama, 1999) changes the whole feel of the game). It is thus necessary to be very explicit about the mods (or lack thereof) used in preparing a piece of games criticism.

Finally, even the settings used to play the game are important to most pieces of games criticism. Even if a piece of game software is unambiguously identified as the text used for a piece of criticism, it is unlikely that the author of the criticism is referring equally to all possible configuration settings within the game. Except for pieces explicitly discussing particular difficulty settings or the like, this is almost never addressed in games writing. Difficulty setting may change entire characters or accessible levels, audio settings can entirely change the aural information available to the player, and control settings can impact the experience in a wide array of ways. Graphical settings can have a dramatic impact as well. Choice of aspect ratio or field of view settings change composition and framing, while overall graphical fidelity changes the visual information available to the player. These sorts of decisions need to be made explicit when referring to aspects of games.

The above list of variables that need to be represented when citing a game is potentially quite large and complex. Perhaps academic writing needs to move away from exclusively citing games the way that books and articles are cited. An article might address this complexity through the inclusion of a "Games Methods" section that, like a methodology section in a science or social science paper, describes in great detail the methods for obtaining and using the games that are cited. This sort of detail is especially necessary if games criticism is to continue to be useful years after it is written, because the default mode of interaction with a game can change dramatically over time. The Half-Life 2 (dev. Valve Corporation, 2004) of 2004 is not the Half-Life 2 sold on Steam today; today, players are using a version with a dramatically updated game engine that affects the whole experience. Will these subtleties be remembered in fifty years without accurate and comprehensive game citations? The games writing community as a whole, at all levels of formality and professionalism, needs to make a conscious effort to improve the specificity of citations to games.


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