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Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo
Alex Reid has written 43 posts for ENG 380: New Media

CLASS RESTARTS SUMMER 2015

Just a note that a new version of this class begins in July 2015. Find more Info here.

History of Video Games 3

History of Video Games 2

The History of Video Games

Course Wrap-Up

I can see several of you are busy getting in your final research blog posts and otherwise wrapping up on the class activity. I hope that you have found the course enjoyable, instructive, and perhaps even useful to you as part of your educational journey. I know an online course can be a strange experience. As a teacher, it is hard to know if your students are learning. You don’t get to look them in the eye. It’s hard to get the vibe of the class, to know what is working, what is engaging, and what isn’t. As a student it can also be disorienting. You can’t see me to know if I think what you are saying is making sense. Your posts are mixed in with dozens of others in a continual flow of conversation.

In the end though, you can look back and see that you have done a fair amount of work. You have read several texts, done independent research, written thousands of words, and composed a research paper. Hopefully you leave the class with a fuller sense of the role of videogaming in our culture, the key issues surrounding the genre, and the role that digital media studies might play in the humanities. I have appreciated the conversations we’ve had over the past few weeks, and overall I feel like I have gotten a good sense of your thoughts about videogaming. I think we’ve had some fruitful conversations, which I hope you’ll carry forward with you in some way.

Grades are due by July 5th, so with the holiday and weekend in-between, I’ll be reading over your research papers and calculating grades early next week. As such, it is necessary that everything is done by that time. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions and I hope the rest of your summer goes smoothly.

Submitting Final Research Papers

Please remember that your final research paper must be submitted by 11:59 PM on Friday. You should post your papers here and email them to me.

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)?

 

geek culture, videogames, and politics

Clearly, Ready Player One is a work of popular fiction and not one I offer to you as an object of great literary achievement of the kind you might typically read in a literature course. It does, however, present us with the history of geek culture, and not as a historian might present it, but as it was experienced by someone inside it (Cline). 30 years ago, few people would have imagined that our world would become infused with information technologies. At the dawn of the personal computing era no one would have guessed that the average American would be a daily computer user. No one would have thought that geeky kids sitting in their garages with motherboards would one day end up being among the wealthiest people in the world and wholly transform culture on a global scale. Today, it is commonplace to look upon geek culture as white, male, and elitist (though that certainly overlooks the significant Asian influences that we see in the novel, though on the flipside, it is interesting to trace the American influence on post-WWII Japan, particularly in terms of animé). Of course such complaints rely upon generalizations that we can always uncover as faulty (e.g. not all geeks are white and male, not all white males are geeks). If we were to push through with this image of geek culture presented in the novel (tech-savvy; well-educated: lover of sci-fi, video games, etc.) then we’d end up with a very small percentage of people who really don’t correspond to the general demographic of white male Americans (religious, conservative, no college degree, not readers, and certainly not readers of sci-fi, etc.).

So how might we describe the ideology driving geek culture? Probably the best place to begin would be with something like the Electronic Freedom Foundation. The EFF focuses on issues of privacy, freedom of information and operates as a watchdog against both corporate and government power. Or you might consider some like Cory Doctorow or Bruce Sterling (in Ready Player One, Doctorow is the president of the OASIS). These political views might be best described as libertarian, though differently libertarian from the guy whose key issues are gun ownership and legal pot. What is commonly shared is a mistrust of government and corporation. We may not share these politics (perhaps we do). I am not interested in critiquing or defending these views here. Instead, I am interested in thinking through how geek politics and culture emerge together on the unlikely path to become central to American life.

For me this crystalizes right now in the form of MinecraftMinecraft has become a very popular game, but to be good at it requires some very geeky knowledge and dedication. There is a kind of geeky workflow associated with the game: working independently creating worlds, making “skin” and so on; spending hours on discussion forums; and developing a deeper than average understanding of computers and networks. In this sense, it’s more than a game. Not surprisingly, the games we play socialize us in certain ways. Geek culture is a certain kind of socialization. 30 years ago being a geek meant being a social pariah. Today it is something different, I think. Perhaps today the rise of the geeks has led us to view the culture differently, though perhaps no less negatively.

 

from Google Glasses to virtual reality

Ready Player One gives us the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation): Cline’s version of a fully immersive, virtual reality future. Of course, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen such things in science fiction. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) coined the term “cyberspace:” “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Later, works like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash gave us the metaverse, which like the OASIS was part game and part internet.

What’s the closest thing we have to such technologies now? Probably Google Glasses

So here’s my question to you… How immersed do you think we can or should become? 10 or 15 years ago we might have said that we wouldn’t want to wander around with a smartphone and today many people would feel disconnected with theirs. I doubt any of us would be in a hurry to live in this dystopian future, but what do we make of these technologies? Do we imagine that video gaming might play a role in developing the interactive and immersive technologies that will shape our future?

Ready Player One and Ernest Cline

For the final book in our course, I selected a work of science fiction. I did this for several reasons.

  1. You should be hip deep in your own research projects right now, so I didn’t think you would benefit from another dense academic text.
  2. I suspected (rightly) that many of you would be a little behind, so this week’s fairly light reading should give you a chance to catch up.
  3. As many of you are English majors, I thought you might be interested in the literary treatment of videogaming.

So, in relation to point #3, why Ready Player One in particular? It’s true that there are many works of science fiction that take up video games as a central theme, starting perhaps most famously with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. What is especially interesting about Cline’s novel (without giving anything away) is that it takes us through the fanboy culture that has had a significant impact on video games. While the culture and business of the video game industry has certainly become more diverse over the last decade or so, there is this specific subculture of geeky kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s and become the core of game designers in the late 80s, 90s, and through the present. This novel explores that culture, admittedly in a loving, fanboy way.

A couple caveats. Clearly this is not an academic treatment, so we cannot take this as a complete study of video game history or culture. At the same time, I would warn against mistaking this culture for a strictly “white boy” thing, even though certainly there is a reason for that stereotype. As you’ll see, many of the cultural objects appearing in the book come from Japan (as many video games have). And, speaking from personal experience as someone who grew up in the 80s, it wasn’t that way. Many of the cultural elements here–the music, the movies, the popular arcade games, etc–cut across American society. At the same time, there is also a representation of a particular kind of geek culture and its fascination with fantasy, sci-fi, Dungeons and Dragons, comic books and so on.

Along with this treatment of video game history, the novel is set in a near, dystopian future. However it is also a world where gaming has become a central medium for culture and life, so in a way it is an opportunity to think through some of McGonigal’s propositions. It is also an extrapolation of the gaming culture Nardi investigates.

I won’t give you a particular reading schedule for the book. I’m sure you’ll find it a light read.