Questioning one’s object of study. Ivory Tower Defense, Games in Academia.
On Feb 23rd, the NYU Game Center (which recently announced it’s new MFA program in game criticism/ theory/ design) is hosting Ivory Tower Defense, Games in the Academy. The event, other than having one of the best names ever to grace an academic event, is a panel discussion between members of the Game Center’s faculty. Moderated Frank Lantz, the Center’s director, and featuring panel/ faculty members Jesper Juul (perhaps known for his book, A Casual Revolution, which chronicles the rise of the “casual gamer), Katherine Isbister, and Eric Zimmerman, the Panel will be a discussion of video gaming and its “complicated relationship to academics”.
For those of you who are unaware, Video Games as an object of academic study is relatively young, mostly due to the fact that it is still a realitively young medium. The medium is just over 50 years old, which is a short time when you consider it in relation to other objects/ areas of study. As such the medium has been undergoing what could be be described as critical growing pains. While people began to examine the idea that video games are a powerful medium, much of the early work on the subject was done through a more decidedly sociological approach (as in; are games damaging our children?).
As I write this, I have in front of me a paper commissioned by the Toronto School Board titled, Student Participation in Video Arcades: A Sociological Study of Causes and Consequences by Desmond Ellis. This paper, written in 1985, seeks to correlate the connections between Video Arcades and juvenile delinquency. It seems that there was such a moral panic in the mid 80s that studies needed to be commissioned to figure out how games were ruining our children. So much so that there was once a By Law in Toronto that prohibited an Arcade from operating within a certain distance of any school. As a child of the Arcade age, I can safely say that I turned out ok, and so did most of the rest.
Since this time, games have become far more widely accepted and now exist as the most popular entertainment medium on the planet. Then Roger Ebert makes a public gaff by claiming that video games could never achieve the status of art. While I won’t offer my own rebuttal here to his perspective, I will point out that other theorists said the same thing about film when it was still in its infancy, as well as countless other media including photography, and yes even the novel!
Speaking as someone who is now in graduate school studying games, I am happy to see that while many of my generation are embracing the notion of games as objects of academic study beyond the sociological, but I am also glad that the good folks at the NYU Game Center want to maintain the conversation about the study of games. It’s important for any of us who choose to study anything to continually question our area of study, to ask WHY we are studying it, to ask WHY it’s significant. Though not simply to justify it to our detractors, but so we can keep ourselves engaged and inspired to continue to contribute to the discourse. It becomes a question of what is it precisely that inspires us to want to study games.
In the past weeks, having now been in Graduate School for about 6 months, I am constantly meeting new people (many of whom are around my age or younger) who have chosen to study games academically. And in its 50 year life, it amazes me at the breadth of gaming culture, for not a single one of my peers has the same focus in their studies. Gaming Culture and its study is a bit like a new frontier in some ways. Sure, the pathfinders have been out there exploring and mapping it for years now, but there is still so much uncharted territory. I think that’s why it’s so exciting for me.
While many others have chosen to focus on issues such as gender and representation in gaming, or narrative in games, or any other myriad of foci, I’ve decided to look at the technology and how it it situated culturally. What I mean by this is, what are the cultural roles that gaming hardware (and software) inhabit during it’s tenure in the consumer market? How do people re-invent new roles for old consoles once they’re past their market peak? How do we engage with our gaming devices? Are they merely tools for immersive entertainment? Creative Tools for us to tinker with? How do we interact with gaming consoles and how do these interactions shape us as users? Game Theorist/Designer Ian Bogost is someone who started this work in object oriented philosophy related to gaming/digital culture; he calls this focus Platform Studies. The first book in the Platform Studies series was Racing the Beam, a book focusing on the Atari 2600.
My reasoning behind this focus is due to several factors. The first of which is how I’ve witnessed the changes in gaming culture and technology since the Atari, which was my first gaming console when I was a child. As I grew I saw the culture and technology grow, gaming and I matured at a similar rate. This led me to becoming a bit of a gearhead: I mod, hack, tinker, break and fix my consoles, teasing out methods of interaction not intended by the technology’s designers. In short, I play WITH the games as much as I play them. It’s these explorations that I’m deeply interested in; in the play practices of gamers, hackers, modders, and other participatory cultures and communities. The work I’ve seen by others is incredible and inspiring; feats of both aesthetic and technical wizardry, often accomplished in a single project. For those of us of my generation who grew up playing games, these practices are as everyday as playing the games themselves.
So, for what it’s worth, I think it is crucial for us to continually question games as an object of study. Though not question its worth as an object of study, gaming culture is so vast, so ubiquitous, such an entrenched cultural phenomenon that of course it requires study. Any medium/object/ creative work/ period of history/ scientific theory/whatever that holds so much influence over us as a species / society demands that we give it our attentions. What I’m thinking here is that we need to talk about how we study games, what our methodologies are/will be, and maybe ask where is this all going. I can’t say for sure where that is, being new to this and all, but I can tell you this, I’m more excited about that journey than I was when Super Mario 3 was released for the NES!