Constraining Play: Steps Toward Neo Formalist Game Analysis

Holger Pötzsch, UiT Tromsø

Taking Russian Formalism’s notion of literariness and attention to poetic defamiliarisation in literature as a point of departure and moving on to a brief presentation of Kirstin Thompson’s adaption of formalist thought to analysis of mainstream Hollywood film and art cinema, the present contribution sketches out a preliminary framework for a neo-formalist analysis of historical computer games.

I briefly introduce previous attempts to use formalism as a research template in game studies, before I outline key devices at the levels of rules, mechanics, and narrative that predispose possible in-game activities and cue player responses. I suggest that formal analysis can help to identify the specific mechanics, rules, and narrative tropes and figures that charge games with particular memory-making potentials that are subsequently negotiated in and through constrained practices of play. The notions of de-familiarisatisation, de-habitualisation, and meaning potentials are thus connected to concrete, empirically observable textual devices and frames, thereby establishing a viable basis for an identification of possible discursive or cultural impacts.

Examples from the war game genre will be used to support the argument and illustrate the applicability of the suggested framework.

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