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Questioning one’s object of study. Ivory Tower Defense, Games in Academia.

February 10, 2012

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!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012 6:47 pm

    Hi. I came across your blog while looking for academic studies of computer games, and I’d like your help.

    The neurological criticism of all video media including computer games as presented in sources such as The Plug-In Drug and The Flickering Mind has always been that it places the viewer in a passive, trance-like state that lowers their willingness to leave while limiting their retention of information. How do motion controls make a difference? By making the user less passive, how do they alter the brain’s state and perceptions? Do they increase the retention of information? All the studies I’ve seen so far focus on physical fitness. I haven’t really found one yet that focuses on the effects on the brain. If you know of one, or know of where I can find information on one, please let me know. Thank you.

    • February 16, 2012 7:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment! While I can’t comment on those two books in specific detail, I will say that I would be skeptical of such biased opinions. Games have both positive and negative effects, and the one thing that psycologists and sociologists need to acknowledge, specifically with kids in the current generation, is that these children are digital natives (that is they grow in a landscape that is constructed of both the real and the digital), so their development is going to be something vastly different (I think) than what we’ve seen before.

      I was at a talk last night for a project I’m involved in about teaching kids New Media Literacies, and there was a behavioural psycologist who gave a talk. Something she mentioned which I found very interesting, is that kids today view technology NOT as a tool as previous generations have, but as part of their environment. Marshall McLuhan called this media ecology, and it’s becoming true now more than ever. One of my problems with so many texts in the field is that idea of “new media alarmism”, or the “everything technological is bad for you” point of view. As theorists, psycologists, sociologists, researchers etc we need to move beyond that.

      But to answer your questions more specifically, The American Psychological Association has an issue of their journal dedicated to gaming from last year (check their website), which makes arguments on both sides. Also look at Jesper Juul’s “A Casual Revolution”, which talks about the rise of casual games (including things like Wii games)… Also there is a game research lab in Toronto at Ryerson called the Edge lab, their work might be worth looking at… or how the US Army uses video games to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD.

      I would also argue against the idea that games create passive children. I would argue that they are MORE engaged with media than ever. People can remember how to navigate game spaces in the same way we know how to navigate realspaces. We map the space in the same way. That’s retaining information in the same way we do everyday. Truthfully I’m more interested in the culture and technology and things like the political economy of gaming over the “sociological effects”.. but if you want to read a book that discusses how games can be a positive influence, check out Ian Bogost’s how to do things with video games, and Jane MacGonigal’s Reality is Broken, How VideoGames can save the world.

      Hope this helps! :)

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