Last week’s article, the first in a series about video games at Yale, pointed out that in the last decade video games have evolved from a “media non grata” to a popular, radical and challenging new art form. And yet, at an institution that tends towards the cerebral, video games receive almost no scholarly attention.
Just from their trailers, it’s evident that video games provide a dynamic commentary on the narrative modes of literature, film, photography, animation, music and more. These disciplines converge uniquely in video games, creating ideal grounds for a broader historical and psychological analysis in games that draws upon these artistic genres. Whether or not this new medium is accepted by the world of academia, acknowledging its existence would certainly make way for new spaces in thinking. Yet some academics have expressed fear that games blithely entertain, eroding the development of rigorous thought.
Should the void of academic criticism concerning video games even be filled? If so, by whom? And how?
Yale’s new Media Study Initiative is a working group of professors that is advising and studying digital literacy, with the participation of Yale Law School and the Film Studies, English, German, Comparative Literature, History and Art History departments
All the professors interviewed for this article agreed that as game play becomes more and more part of 21st century experience and culture, so too will the University better train students to think more critically about them, as it has already begun to do with digital technology.
And as more and more graduate students increasingly write dissertations on topics of digital media — including digital literature, cyber games and electoronic poetry — their inclusion into Yale faculty is likely only a matter of maturation and time.
“It seems like most of the young humanities Ph.D.s getting hired by universities today are the ones with ‘unique’ specialties,” Jacob Paul ’13 speculated. “I can easily see a video-game theorist getting hired to teach in a forward-thinking English or Literature department.”
The relevance of studying games extends beyond traditional media and into the realms of economics, linguistics, computer science, sociology, global health and cognitive science.
“What kind of socio-aesthetic exchange goes on in the South Korean multi-player game ‘Lineage,’ with two million active players? These games are not only the future of gaming, they are huge social experiments that will affect and shape the future of human communication,” writes video game theorist Espen Aarseth.
Inspired by Yale’s Media Study Initiative, German Professor Henry Sussman’s “Books, Displays & Systems Theory” class seeks to evaluate this generation’s cybernetic lives. For him, the duty of a university like Yale is to interpret and analyze new technologies in their proper context so that students may better understand them.
Theory of Media Professor Francesco Casetti similarly spoke to the necessity of studying games against the wider panoply of their historical and intellectual backdrop. “To strip away video games from their niche, and look at them comparatively — that is critical,” he said.
A TRANSVERSAL APPROACH
But the defintion of what it means to be forward thinking and comparatively critical towards new technology differs by department.
Teaching means more than pointing out that something exists, for Casetti. It means making critical analysis to demonstrate how different media — not just the latest iPhone release — can infect our lives and the category of our thinking.
Video games’ transformation of reality is not exceptionally new for Casetti. He sees games as vehicles to address current media topics such as the relationship of perception and the possible to the real and the imaginary. In games, as in film, “You are risking your life but in fact you do not risk it.” As a film specialist, Casetti also noted the increasingly parallel development of games, gaming technology and film, such as in the recent conceit of Avatar.
“Just as film took from theater, literature and music, games are deeply indexed with many forms of modern literature, painting, and so on,” said Casetti.
Video game enthusiasts react to this academic push for context as an attack of aesthetic over-determination, academic colonialism, commercial bias and general elitism. They complain that instead of evaluating the games on their own merit, the academic debate too frequently asks “Can games be read like a ‘text’?”
English Professor Jessica Pressman, who studies digital literature, calls the claim that literary scholars and critics are colonizing games “ludicrous and almost pathetic.”
She asks that rather than making the “simple distinctions between narratives vs. games or literature vs. pop culture,” video games should be mined for the myriad of interdisciplinary contributions they make instead of stuck in the mire of petty genre fights.
THE THIRD WAY
There is another way of looking at gaming’s history that reaches the same conclusion as Casetti via different means — games fit into history because games are older than stories.
“You don’t see cats or dogs tell each other stories, but they will play. And games are interspecies communication: you can’t tell your dog a story, but the two of you can play together,” writes Aarseth.
Mike Liuzzi ’12, who is in Sussman’s class and is writing his Senior Essay on video games as a religious experience, wonders if “history is looping. We had games and lost them and now have books,” he said.
The outfit of games, rather than games themselves, are being made new just as literature moved from the oral to print to digital.
“It’s surely happening, needs to happen, and will happen at Yale but as always at Yale in a deliberate way,” Sussman said in defense of what might be percieved as a slow transition into the digital world. Navigating this new world and negotiating our “cybernetic unconscious,” according to Sussman, necessitates a dialectic between students (products of this digital age) and faculty (who knew the world before it).
“There should be direct involvement of students. They’re out there and live it. I theorize it,” he said.
The slow time of interpreting and analyzing and fast world of real-time gaming is necessary as the transition into the digital world cannot just be conceptual and operational. To be successful, the transition must preserve analog skills such as the ability to read texts closely and analyze artifacts carefully.
BEING IN TIME
Yet the perceived fear and institutional hostility gamers project onto academia is also real.
“I think the reason a lot of us might be quite reticent in segueing to media such as games that take place in real time might be that doing so forfeits fundamental literary skills that are the cornerstone of a Yale education,” Sussman said.
Pressman added a few more reasons why academics might fear the study of games, including their violent, sexist and racist content. She also pointed to a hesitation to conflate criticism and commercial entertainment. The academy and its tenured professors ostensibly exist outside the marketplace, yet video games are currently “one of the most lucrative things on the market.”
Lastly, most academics haven’t been trained to approach a game, yet.
As of now, games seriously raise the issue of what the role of the critic and academy should be when it’s clear that more people are playing games than reading novels.
Video games will keep plugging along regardeless of whether the ivory tower shines a light on them. This fact forces an interesting case to be made for the value of theory in general.
“Games and digital tech have the opportunity to bring us back into the fold and allow us to bring theory into design process so the academy is not separate from creational culture,” Pressman said. “We need not to just be analyzing the product after the fact but situating self in the moment of design.”
She makes a strong case for the reconciliation of technology and cultural criticism to force developers to make “better, more humanisitic games.”
“What literature and theory and the arts all have in common is they open release valves in political and social systems that may have reached untenable levels of closure,” Sussman said.
Because, for all their relevance and action, video games may not have the deliberation nor the institutional support to theorize themselves.