50 Shades of Blue, DiGRA-FDG, and Games

Walking around the harbour of Dundee I was struck by the beautiful shades of deep blue splattered in the Scottish water. Walking towards a mixed crowd of old and young folk, with their smartphone sticking out in front of them reminded me again of why I was in Scotland. I had the pleasure of presenting at the Digital Games Research Association and the Foundations of Digital Games (DiGRA-FDG) conference.

In between the busy programme, I even had a couple of hours to spare and saw the beautiful remnants of Victorian times and the industrial high times which left its scars in the city. Emma Fraser, you would have loved it. My hotel was a hybrid combination of a sweet Scottish cottage, 80s disco-vibes, and the smell of great curry, as the hotel was recently renovated by its Indian owners.

But back to the enormous games conference. My presentation was titled ‘Game Essays as Critical Media and Research Praxis’ and it explored the value and function of game design as a form of critical making within humanities research. I wrote the paper six months into my PhD research to position myself in the complex interdisciplinary world of software systems, game studies, and conflict studies. I broadly defined game essays an interactive audio-visual work that embodies and questions games and play. My interpretation of the essay is appropriated from Theodor Adorno, who considers the essay a form of heresy, borrowing the aesthetic autonomy from art to critique the ideology of its objects. There were fruitful and critical questions concerning the meaning and relevance of ideology, and whether or not let’s play video’s could be envisioned as part of game essays.

With the advent of digital media scholar Lev Manovich as opening keynote, all the scholars showed up to the official opening of the conference. Alas, unfortunately the man of the hour had trouble with his visa and couldn’t make it to the conference. However, this did instigate a very interesting lastminute crowdsourced plenary session where scholars were invited to give five-minute talks about their game-related research. All in all, I was very disappointed Manovich couldn’t make it to the conference since I had planned to build on his ideas in my presentation. Better luck next time.


Later that day I was also part of a panel on the Utrecht Game Lab, with Stefan Werning as the master mind. Werning’s (Forthcoming) approach called analytical game design can be conceptualised as followed:

  1. A consequently media comparative approach to design as a research method.  The Games on Games project already cursorily references a few prominent examples of media creation as reflexive practice such as Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (McCloud 1994);
  1. A focus on gameplay vignettes rather than actual games as a unit of expression. Most game labs currently; Analytical Game Design esp.;
  1. A view on game design as a “cultural technique” (Winthrop-Young 2013), complementing ludoliteracy (Zagal 2010) as an essential skill in an increasingly ‘gamified’ society. Builds on notions such as “critical modification” (Loring-Albright 2015).


All in all, I really enjoyed the conference and it gave me many new ideas for my research. Before I forget, I will publish the DiGRA paper on Academia.edu very soon, so stay tuned if you want to read more.




Adorno, Theodor W. 1984 [1958]. “The Essay as Form,” New German Critique, 151–71. Translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will.

Loring-Albright, Greg. 2015. “The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification.” Analogue Game Studies 2 (7). http://analoggamestudies.org/2015/11/the-first-nations-of-catan-practices-in-critical-modification/.

McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

De Smale, S. Forthcoming, 2016. “Game Essays as Critical Media and Research Praxis.” FDG-DiGRA Conference Proceedings, Dundee, United Kingdom.

Werning, Stefan. 2016. “FORTHCOMING. Analytical Game Design. Game-Making as a Cultural Technique in a Gamified Society.” In The Playful Citizen: Knowledge, Creativity, Power, edited by René Glas, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Joost Raessens, and Imar de Vries, tbd. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. 2013. “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks.” Theory, Culture & Society 30 (6): 3–19.

Zagal, Jose P. 2010. Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education. Pittsburgh, PA: ETC Press.

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