Why Take Games Seriously? Digital Humanities and the Study of Games

  1. 1. Jason C. Rhody

    University of Maryland, College Park

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Until recently, the study of games from a humanities
perspective has been a surprisingly impoverished field,
with the relatively few titles generally philosophical or
ethnographic in nature. Yet the recent rise of game studies has
generated a wealth of scholarship as interdisciplinary as the
games themselves. What is it about computer games that caused
such an increase in attention? Why do these games merit such
scrutiny? With a robust industry comprised of both popular and
independent studios that have produced thousands of virtual
worlds and environments, computer games have become one
of the fastest rising modes of new media expression. As Janet
Murray asserts, "the largest commercial success and the greatest
creative effort in digital narrative have so far been in the area
of computer games" (Hamlet on the Holodeck 51). If the
computer represents a “single new medium of representation,
the digital medium, formed by the braided interplay of technical
invention and cultural expression,” (Murray, New Media
Theory Reader 3), the game is its most prominent genre,
simulating sport, adventure, exploration, war, economies, and
even life itself. In fewer than fifty years, computer games have
grown from allowing text-based adventurers to crawl through
fictionalized caves to generating miles upon miles of virtual
landscape inhabited by its digital citizens and with economies
rivaling that of several real-world countries. Whereas a single
white dot once floated across a dark screen in an abstraction of
table tennis, players can now top-spin their way through the
rankings at a virtual Grand Slam tournament.
This paper examines both the long and short history of gaming
and its scholarship within a humanities context, arguing that
games play a crucial role in any serious academic study of new
media and within the overarching framework of the digital
humanities. After an overview detailing how games have
influenced and engaged with traditional humanities topics, I
discuss three ways that games should be taken seriously in the
digital humanities: as models for learning and rhetoric (as with
the “Serious Games” movement); as objects that are part of the
larger digital media ecology desperately in need of preservation;
and as objects of critical study. In short, this paper addresses
why, and how, humanities scholars should take games seriously.
I begin with a brief review of games’ rich ‘long history’ in the
humanities, which includes art both about games, such as the
11th-century Chinese painting of “Ladies Playing Double
Sixes,” and the artistry of games, such as the pieces from a
19th-century Indian chess set, whose delicate nature suggests
that they are as much decorative as functional. From a cultural
historical perspective, games reveal much about social
hierarchies: the extravagance of the late sixteenth-century
Moghul ruler Akbar, who had elaborate Pachisi boards
constructed of flagstones so that he might play, using beautiful
girls dressed in appropriate colors; or the inclusion of a game
within the Chinese literati’s four key accomplishments in the
arts: mastery of the zither, calligraphy, painting, and weiqi
(perhaps better recognized by its Japanese name: Go); or the
simple modesty of card and board games found at all levels of
society. From a literary perspective, games inflect upon the
playfulness of Dadaism, the linguistic games of the Oulipo, or
even as plot device, as with Scrooge, so taken with the party’s
games “wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was
going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he
sometimes came out with his guess quite loud, and very often
guessed quite right, too” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol 69).
The long history of games conspires with the shorter history
of the modern computer game, which both remediates (in Bolter
and Grusin’s sense) previous artistic and ludic forms, while
also taking advantage of the unique feedback mechanisms
afforded by modern computing technology. While sometimes
marked by William Higginbotham's 1958 Tennis for Two,
created at Brookhaven Labs using an analog computer
connected to an oscilloscope, most scholars attribute the first
digital computer game to Steve Russell, who wrote SpaceWar!
on a PDP-1 mainframe computer in 1962. The first text
adventure game, ADVENTURE, was created by William
Crowther and later refined by Don Woods in 1975. Both a game
and a simulation, ADVENTUREwas inspired by the Mammoth
Cave system in Kentucky, which Crowther and his wife
regularly explored. Now, over six million players quest through
the vast reaches of Azeroth in the online multiplayer game
World of Warcraft, while others learn of redemption in the
single-player Prince of Persia trilogy. With an over forty year
history of their own, computer games, their rise, complexity,
and popularity, have reminded us that games – the long history
of games – are perhaps our most understudied form of art and
The recent prominence of games has led educators and policy
makers to turn (once again) to interactive gaming media as a
way to educate students and influence opinion, resulting in
titles like Darfur is Dying, the language and culture military
education game Tactical Iraqi, the educational game Discover
Babylon, or the social critique of Kinko’s worker in Disaffected.
Taking games seriously requires understanding their
mechanisms, both in order to exploit strategies for successful education but also to provide suitable, knowledgeable critique
of an increasingly prevalent rhetorical platform. Through this
continuous process of understanding these models for interactive
rhetoric, entertainment, and education, scholars also can begin
to build a framework that allows for the preservation for the
many digital media forms that are too slowly finding their way
into our public archival institutions (with a few notable
Games deserve our attention not only because of their potential
in education, and not simply for their role as a cultural, historical
artifact, but also because they are perhaps the
computer-as-medium's most unique art, one that takes the basic
function of computing – interactivity – and refines it into an
expression, a meaningful exchange often articulated by a
challenge between opposing interests. I conclude by providing
one example of how to ‘take games seriously’ as an object of
critical study based on its own merits. I provide an overview
of ‘game fiction,’ which I define as a sub-genre of game that
draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain,
and lead the user through a fictional environment. The
relationship of computer games to more traditional forms, and
especially narrative, has been a contentious issue within the
growing field of game studies. Understanding games’
indebtedness to and departure from other expressive works,
particularly the narrative forms of prose fiction and film, proves
a delicate challenge. The solution, I argue, stems partly from
creating an understanding of genre within games that addresses
underlying mechanisms as much as subject matter, and moves
beyond the genres that heretofore have been casually outlined.
With the example of ‘game fiction,’ I suggest a framework for
studying games – and for distinguishing types of games that
are all too often lumped together under a singular rubric – that
both draws on existing scholarly practice while also taking into
account the unique computational framework of the modern
computer game.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None