Espen Aarseth

On the backdrop of the more or less permanent crisis of the Arts and Humanities, it is perhaps frivolous to talk about a crisis in one of its youngest and fairly thriving subfields, game studies. Even if it is through invocation of Paul de Man’s ironic reference to Mallarmé in his famous essay from 1970, where de Man diagnoses crisis through the observed speed of changing trends. In game studies, the moment (often mistaken for a movement) of “ludology” happened so briefly that it was over just as the field itself began to take shape, around 2001. However, in the following decade, ‘ludology’ became an autopoetic category of all that was wrong in the field, from ludo-purism and reductive formalism to the marginalization of gender, narrative and even textuality. A recent example of this is Brendan Keogh’s essay “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games” (2013), which in its attack on “reductive formalism” perfectly echoes the ‘ludologists’’ attack on earlier, reductive game research, and identifies its own position within “a younger generation of theorists with a more everyday relationship to videogames”.

However, the current and perhaps only permanent crisis in game studies, as can be seen by the continuing counter-ludologogical rhetoric with its constructed dichotomy between theoretical formalism and close reading, is one of game criticism. An unusually stark example is the current internet war known as #gamergate, where game journalism and game development is accused of dangerous liaisons, and where feminist critiques of sexist game content is met by online harassment by outraged fans. But underneath this is a deeper dissatisfaction, both in gamer culture, game academia, and in game journalism itself, with the state and potential of game criticism. Especially symptomatic is that parallel to the self-reflective crisis of journalist and academic game critics, we find the runaway success of the “let’s Play” youtubers; foremost among which is the ironic-infantile game commenter Pewdiepie, with his youtube-record-breaking 31 million subscribers. The theoretical underpinnings of this impasse of game criticism is the topic of this paper.

The central problem: how can game criticism resolve the tension between text and gameplay, between representation and intervention?

As an intellectual multigenre-tradition, criticism is characterized by semiotic analysis. Games, however, are only partly semiotic, and these centaurian ludic objects, consisting of mechanical structures as well as textual messages, pose an epistemethodological challenge to the critic: How can the ludic aspects of the ludic object be subject to (textual) criticism? The paper will close-read 4-5 influential gamecritical essays, examine how they meet the challenge of engaging the ludic paratext, and uncover the (here hypothesized) logocentric ideology of ludocentric criticism.


De Man, Paul (1970) Criticism and Crisis, in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1983). Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press.

Keogh, Brendan ( 2013) “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games”