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videogames, the humanities, and judgment

As we move toward the end of course, it is time for some summative thoughts. I suppose one of my real dislikes about English and the humanities in general is our tendency to make summary judgments about issues. It is an odd contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, we are more than willingly, perhaps even obligated by our discipline, to recognize the uncertainty of interpretation; we will say that a poem or novel or film or painting could mean different things to different people (within reason of course). In part, this keeps us in business. Otherwise the meaning of artistic works could be settled once and for all! On the other hand, we are equally willing to pass judgments that we hold to be as certain as we deem our interpretations to be uncertain. We are quick to say this or that is good or bad, art or not art, racist or sexist, or something.

It is safe to say that videogames produce aesthetic experiences in humans (setting aside any judgment on the quality of those experiences) and that they circulate sociopolitical/cultural/ideological values (setting aside any judgment on those values).We may say the same of any artistic work, indeed any object that humans participated in making. These are the objects we tend to study across the humanities. In this respect they are as worthy of study as object.

However, there’s another glitch. Our traditional methods don’t allow us to study everything. Conventionally we have decided to study those things that we think are the “best” (another judgment): Shakespeare, for example. 40 years ago, we decided that what we had thought of as best was culturally biased (i.e. dead white guys), so we diversified our selection. But we didn’t get rid of the idea that we should study what was best; we just tried to shift our notion of what “best” meant. Alongside this move, we also started to pay more attention to pop culture (i.e. what wasn’t “best”) and the historical contexts of our objects (which also meant studying material that wasn’t “best” but could inform our understanding of the best objects).

I suppose that studying videogames could fit alongside pop cultural studies of popular movies, television, genre fiction, and so on. But I don’t see that as the context in a class on new media. Instead, our more general purpose is to investigate the cultural operation of emerging communications technologies: videogames just happens to be the example. Clearly we make judgments about videogames from video game reviews to studies on their psychological effects. But as a scholar I’m not interested in making those judgments myself; I am interested in understanding how those judgments are made. That is, I am interested in the mechanisms.

How do videogames produce aesthetic experiences? When we look at McGonigal or Galloway we get some answers to that question. We can consider human psychology or we might look at game mechanics, at gamic action as Galloway terms it. How do videogames circulate social values? Bogost offers us a plethora of different ways this happens. Nardi goes in depth into a single game to explore its social function.

So I ask you: what can we learn from studying videogames as humanists? How might emerging media shift our understanding of the purposes and methods of the humanities (purposes and methods invented and designed to operate in a print culture)?



About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo


5 thoughts on “videogames, the humanities, and judgment

  1. There is a ton of fruitful territory here. I’ll start with, “What can we learn from studying videogames as humanists?” by looking at humanism.

    Classical Humanism.

    High Classical Greece holds a lasting vision on establishing humanism. At that point, we celebrated the human in all expressions. Arts, sciences, and religion all glorified the human center. These fields were not so cleanly cut either. In architecture, for example, all three functioned very directly. The Parthenon mixed human perception (science), conception (art), and meaning/emulation (religion).These asoects justified, validated and valued (as in judgement [i.e. hubris]) human agency. The contained and united system propelled the innovations that still stand to represent its success.

    Today, our entities are separated. We have more distinct lines between art, science, and religion. Rarely do these come together in unison. Just look at the limited communication and collaboration between departments at UB. What happened to the The School of Athens? What’s more, our human center, if there at all, is a semblance of the past (Granted, the rhizome-like postmodern structures seem to have great potential).

    New Humanism

    Many separate fields that have a tendency of insularity come together in video games like they did in architecture during High Classical Greece. There is code (math), narrative (meaning), technology (science), communication, industry (meaning), innovative visualization process (art), and more all are present in production. Each of these distinctions are only topical, and many cross in the process of their own manifestations. What’s more, all come together to create a temple that reflects experience through the experience its reflecting, sometimes even metaphorically, as in first person simulations. Video gaming culture creates its own world centered around and on human innovation and experience.

    Posted by chasecon | June 25, 2013, 2:54 pm
  2. By asking what humanists can learn from the study of video games makes me think of an answer in the form of a question. What is considered art? More importantly, what is considered literature? The type of texts that can be studied seems to be growing at an exponential rate with the development of new technologies. No longer do we have to only study poems, but now we have to study the novel, the visual art, photographs, films, and most recently, the interactive video game. This is simply another layer to help humanists better understand the human mind and inner meanings of one’s self. This time we get a different perception of things because video games require each individual to make choices throughout the storyline. This seems to show that we are all individuals with our own ways of thinking, and we will respond to the same situations in very different ways. In a way, the development of video games can teach humanists that while we may be part of larger groups, we are all unique and there is no correct answer to figure out how a person will react to any situation life throws at us.

    Perhaps it is time for the humanities to go through a change just as the rest of the world has. We are no longer in a print based society, meaning that pictures, video, and interactive video (in the form of “games”) is now an acceptable medium to analyze. With the development of video games, plots get thicker, conceptions get deeper, and meanings that are just as tricky to figure out as the ones in written texts can now be found in video games. This is just the beginning step of a new type of humanities, one that may be seen as popular, just as reading a book was once the ultimate high point of entertainment and discussion.

    Posted by jamesste | June 25, 2013, 4:40 pm
  3. I think there is an interesting contradiction hidden in your post.
    It had never clearly occurred to me that we do indeed only study “the best” of literature from the past, and your analysis of how society has dealt with what we consider the best is spot on. However, I think the reason we study the best of things is because generally the best of anything produces the most progress for that field. The best mathematicians and scientists left behind notes and studies that helped our current scientists continue their research. The same can be said about writers. The best writers helped influence the next generations that built off their achievements.
    In terms of video games, I think there is such a broad base in terms of what the best is and this course has illustrated that. Every scholarly article we read didn’t just touch on one game or even one genre of game, even My Life as a Night Elf priest discussed other types of games. I think the future of humanities (as one of my peers mentioned above) is moving away from what has traditionally been humanities and venturing towards the geek side. By that I mean that interactive media and other kinds of media will take a bigger role in academics research and attention.
    I think a good video game is very much like a good book. I get the same feelings from playing a video game with a strong story line as I do when reading a book with a strong story line. I think what the study of the humanities will have to do, which it has struggled with in the past, is combine different levels of study and apply that fusion to look at video games. By that I mean people will need to learn how to appreciate video game art not just on its own, but in the context of the game itself and the story.
    I believe that is the future of the humanities.

    Posted by Ben Tarhan | June 25, 2013, 4:58 pm
  4. There are a lot of ideas, here. I’m not sure if I’m correct in understanding that you have interest in exploring the reasons why we select certain games, books or films as “the best,” which is certainly an interesting pursuit and one that would require a great knowledge of the respective mediums and their histories.

    More explicit were your questions about videogames in relation to humanism. My initial reaction to academic endeavors like this is one of skepticism. It’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that these are GAMES, and that every action taken therein has a degree of levity appropriate with that. Even genuine fury or malevolent action is within the realm of that harmless, lighthearted place. Elevating the medium by applying to it these heavy concepts can yield misleading results–the these game worlds have laws and ways of being that are very different and, I’d argue, are largely unfit for too much social/ideological scrutiny in terms of the real world.

    That being said, where there’s the biggest opportunity to look at such things is one we’ve already spent a fair chunk of time looking at: massively multiplayer online games. MMOs or MMORPGs can provide fascinating case studies–I wowed some classmates with my awesome storytelling skills in a reply to a post about the Ultima series detailing the story of when the series creator made an appearance in his own game only to be instantly set on fire and destroyed. It’s definitely really cool stuff, but again–I’m just not sure how serious we should take anything that happens in a videogame.

    Posted by bretth2 | June 26, 2013, 7:43 pm
  5. The humanities in the 21st Century… JAMESSTE concluded their analysis with a provoking sentence, “This is just the beginning step of a new type of humanities, one that may be seen as popular, just as reading a book was once the ultimate high point of entertainment and discussion.” The humanities study how humans appear in technology. We love what we’ve done with it. We love literature because the print disappears. It happily yields to the ideas it houses within carefully designed typography. “There’s a representation of the great potential of man in there!” we say pointing at a book. Today, it is easy to forget that printing technology and even written language, are the not so distant predecessors of current media technologies. If the medium is the message now, then the medium has always been the message, and the medium of print is written word. Today, the rate of developing media technology is unbelievable. We are entertained and we discuss. But I have found that we discuss the form, more than the content. We discuss action scenes and how amazing the dinosaurs look in 3-D, but despite the deeper level of immersion, we still don’t care to give words to the complex metaphors that hopefully are still exciting our societal subconscious. We give our money for the wonder, a concept that’s blissfully passive. This just means the technologies are evolving faster than our ability to lose wonder. The humanities have the opportunity to help balance wonder with equally valuable comprehension (especially of those things that cause wonder). Now, scientific and visual technologies out play the development of a language capable of matching it. The future voice of the humanities is to understand the new, algorithmic man so that our reflection keeps up with the technology doing TH3H0RR0RTH3H0RR0R@ABY55.com. This man is the same man in our books, and we have to ensure his complexities don’t get lost in the wonder.

    Posted by chasecon | June 27, 2013, 12:44 am

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