This past fall, the University of Washington became the first institution in the nation to throw its money and support behind a project that focuses specifically on exploring the value of video games and what they tell us about ourselves.
Video games may seem like a strange subject for scholarly research. But the fact is—from a quick hand of Texas Hold ’em on a mobile device to Scrabble on Facebook—Americans everywhere are playing them. The sheer prevalence of video games—whose sales are rapidly outpacing global cinema and music sales, statistics show—is evidence of their growing importance. But what does it mean to play a video game?
To answer this question, a half-dozen Humanities graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences formed the Keywords for Video Games Studies group. But right away, this group realized that the vocabulary used to talk about play, expression and experience doesn’t satisfactorily describe the unique effects of digital media. So, armed with a grant from the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, the research group decided its first action should be to host a series of workshops to measure old words against a new art form. The workshops are taking on six keyword concepts: play, immersion/interactivity, avatar, power/control, pedagogy, and gamer.
“There needs to be a more nuanced and critical approach to thinking about games” beyond demonizing them as corrupting youth, says Edmond Chang, founding member of the Keywords group.
As a cultural artifact, video games have an exotic allure: They are often dismissed as childish and shallow, a condemnation familiar to the artists who pushed comic books into legitimacy decades ago. Likewise, video games are the stuff of youth culture, which has inadvertently hidden the complexity, beauty and storytelling potential of games from an older generation whose counterculture was more familiar with pinball machines than with staring into an LED screen.
But the fact is, two-thirds of American households possess some kind of video-game system. That makes them even more popular than cable television. The Keywords group wants to understand the medium as something beyond an American desire to waste time. So the question arises: What does it mean to play a video game?
The player must solve puzzles, destroy enemy strongholds, gather resources. Somehow, all of these demands on a player’s concentration contribute to the experience of understanding a story.
A playable character follows the trajectory of a story arc, as the designers intend, but things get complicated as disruptions arise: The player must solve puzzles, destroy enemy strongholds, gather resources. Somehow, all of these demands on a player’s concentration contribute to the experience of understanding a story. Sound familiar? Next time you are watching a TV news program, notice the scrolling updates at the bottom of the screen, stock tickers, graphics and as many as four talking heads arguing from different locations across the country on an HD split-screen format. That’s not so different than a video-game experience.
The Keywords group’s first workshop looked at the issue of “play.” Today’s complex video games rely heavily on the mechanics of resource gathering and management. That means “play” has become more about balancing systems than creative problem solving (as you might find in a game like chess).
The most common examples of resource management problems can be seen in nearly any casual game on Facebook. Farmville, for instance, is about balancing the natural resources of a farm with the economic rewards of an open market. Tim Welsh, a Ph.D. student and co-founder of the Keywords group, identified Marx’s theory of the primitive accumulation of capital as being exemplified in how gang economies function in Grand Theft Auto. But the freedom to choose a destiny in the digital realm, even in an “open world” game like Grand Theft Auto, is restricted by the limits of its computer program.
Terry Schenold, a Ph.D. student in English and a founding member of the UW’s Critical Gaming Project, suggests that video-game play can represent an even deeper level of introspection. “What is this specific game asking me to think and do?” he says. “How does it configure my experience of the field of ideas, narratives, images, sounds, and game spaces it submits to my exploration?”
These are the kinds of questions that attracted the interest of the Simpson Center for the Humanities, which encourages cross-disciplinary research and inquiry among UW faculty and students. Miriam Bartha, the Simpson Center’s associate director, says the Keywords Studies group is examining the way video games deal with social constructs.
“By investigating video games through keyword concepts like ‘play,’ ‘interactive’ and ‘avatar,’ these students are engaging questions about narrative, character, aesthetics and meaning-making that span anthropology, sociology, literature and the arts.”
Interestingly, the study of video games is encountering the most resistance from inside the gaming community—namely students, gamers all, who are participating in the Keywords group’s coursework. They’re only interested in mastering the game, not delving into the implications of blasting an opponent with a shotgun, or wondering why most central characters are often white males.
But the Keywords group wants students to think of video games as maps of American culture—and not just a way to kill time, kill bad guys, and have some fun along the way.