Black magic woman: A blood elf, left, prepares to cast a spell on mana surge, center, a type of air elemental, in World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade. Blizzard Entertainment
Black magic woman: A blood elf, left, prepares to cast a spell on mana surge, center, a type of air elemental, in World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade. Blizzard Entertainment

The New Game Theory

Long considered a vehicle for mindless escapism, video gaming is increasingly becoming the topic of serious scholarship.
Writer: 
November 30, 2007
 

"Ready!" And, go. He rushes left, gobbling tiny white dots along the way. He makes a left and a quick right, maneuvering through the black labyrinth. Now he's sailing, in the clear. Seeing an orange ghost making eyes at him, he changes course and heads for an energizer, knowing that if he eats it, the ghost will be temporarily neutralized. He's keeping an eye out for drifting fruit.

In some ways, it's an epic struggle, says Benny Schwartz. But when you get right down to it, Pac-Man is just a yellow circle with a triangular mouth. Still, he says, many people have interpreted the classic arcade game "as a metaphor for life."

Schwartz and fellow first-year student Guillaume Vanderschueren have created a video "podcast" to educate the other students in their freshman seminar about Pac-Man and other early computer and arcade games. They talk about these games the way students in a literature class might discuss Moby-Dick or Beowulf.

But these two are not crazed video-game addicts hijacking a great-books discussion. They're simply completing an assignment for "How They Got Game," a course offered by the Information Science and Information Studies (ISIS) program that explores the history and cultural impact of video games. Packaging their report in digital form instead of delivering it live gives them the opportunity to lay their voices over a video track that includes appropriate sequences from the games themselves.

The theme of the course might sound odd because, to many people, video gaming represents either an entertaining escape from reality or a mind-numbing waste of time. But to a growing number of scholars, ludology, the humanities-based study of video games and game history and culture, has become a fascinating academic field. And while many mainstream news stories focus on games as unhealthy addictions, these same games are increasingly being picked apart as narratives, their characters analyzed, and their cultural influences and implications explored.

"How They Got Game," taught by Tim Lenoir, Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair of new technologies and society, is the centerpiece of Duke's freshman Focus program on "Virtual Realities: Visualizations, Imagined Worlds and Games," now in its second year. (Focus programs incorporate a cluster of courses that share a common theme.) The virtual-realities program includes four courses in addition to Lenoir's, in the fields of visual studies, information science, computer science, and classical studies.

It has a universal academic flavor, with a twist, says Cathy Davidson, Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English and interim director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, where the ISIS program is based. Focusing on virtual realities, and on video games in particular, allows Lenoir and his colleagues to teach students "how to think critically about this medium that they're so involved in and use it to study other things," Davidson says.

Each course approaches the topic of gaming from the perspective of a particular discipline. For instance, the computer-science course focuses on basic programming that is applicable to games and other software. The classical-studies course examines, among other things, the history and myths that have influenced the themes of modern fantasy games such as World of Warcraft and the research that goes into creating their worlds and characters.

Another world: In Second Life, avatars enjoy a party

Another world: In Second Life, avatars enjoy a party. Copyright 2007, Linden Research Inc.

In Lenoir's "How They Got Game," the Focus cluster's flagship course, students begin the semester exploring what constitutes a game, reading articles by new video-game theorists, as well as academics who wrote about games long before the digital variety existed. Among other things, scholars argue about the role that fun, the sense of challenge, consequences, and a player's intent or seriousness play in defining a game. Students explore the evolution of games both in terms of technology and the ways in which the content responds to cultural themes. When they talk about the game Wolfenstein 3D, for example, they discuss both its importance as the first commercially successful "first-person shooter" (instead of manipulating an animated character, the player "becomes" part of the game, and the action is seen through his eyes) and the cultural significance of a World War II-themed game in which the object is to kill Nazis. Freshman Ben Arnstein suggests that a World War II theme was more marketable than, say, a Vietnam War theme, because World War II was "a more archetypal 'good-versus-evil' war."

In other class periods, they use critical theory to explore narrative concepts and point of view in games, and games as art. They learn about the role the military has played in pushing the limits of game development while trying to create realistic battle simulations. They study social networks using "massively multiplayer" online role-playing games, which can involve tens of thousands of players participating at once. They read articles discussing whether violent games ranging from the early first-person shooters to those from the infamous Grand Theft Auto series inspire real violence. They study the case for gaming addiction as a real disease.

Each week, pairs of students air digital videos that they've created to discuss the issues of the day. Often, the videos feature sequences lifted from games to demonstrate principal theories. Lenoir also sets aside time each week for students familiar with the various games they study to "demo" the games live for the class. Last year Lenoir was so impressed with the creative and artistic output of his students that he approached the Nasher Museum of Art about setting up a display of the videos. When he was informed that the Nasher does not display student art, he and his students sought an alternate approach. In Second Life, an online simulated world, they built a virtual Nasher and posted the videos there.

Many of the students who enroll in the gaming Focus are avid gamers, but not all. Julia Chou, a sophomore who took Lenoir's class last year, grew up with a brother who played games all the time, but stayed away from them herself. Still, she was intrigued by the concept of studying them and likes the idea of a new field that has many angles left unexamined. She's considering working with Lenoir on independent video-game research, which in an odd way, she says, is "more academic" than her current job working with mice in a science lab.

Worlds within worlds: In the virtual Nasher museum created by Lenoir and his students, avatars view exhibit on social commentary in video games

Worlds within worlds: In the virtual Nasher museum created by Lenoir and his students, avatars view exhibit on social commentary in video games. © 2007, Linden Research Inc., Rockstar Games

Lenoir is, by training, a historian of science. His initial interest in video games stemmed from research he conducted on the military's battle simulations and the idea of the "military-entertainment complex," or the ties between simulations developed by the military and commercially available war games. Before coming to Duke in 2004, Lenoir was a professor of history and chair of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. In the late 1990s, he collaborated with Henry Lowood, an archivist at Stanford who shared his interest in military games, to establish a new research project that they called "How They Got Game." Part of the project was an undergraduate course that focused on the history of computer-game design, exploring themes of business, culture, and technology. When Lenoir came to Duke, he brought the class with him. He initially taught the course as an upper-level seminar, but last year, folded it into the Focus program.

The themes visited by Lenoir's class are the grist of the rapidly turning modern-game-studies mill. Video games have been around, in one form or another, almost as long as computers, and articles analyzing games have been published in scholarly journals since at least the early 1980s. But until 2000, scholarly production in the field was sparse, says Jesper Juul, a noted game theorist, game designer, and co-editor of the online journal Game Studies. The beginning of the decade was a turning point for the field. In 2000 and 2001, several academic conferences and journals, including Game Studies, appeared for the first time. Juul, who has a background in the humanities and earned his Ph.D. in video-game studies from the IT University of Copenhagen, says that the field rose out of a sort of "distributed critical mass" that had been slowly gathering.

Alliance gathering: A guild comprising a dwarf, an elf, and humans prepares for a quest in World of Warcraft

Alliance gathering: A guild comprising a dwarf, an elf, and humans prepares for a quest in World of Warcraft
Blizzard Entertainment

Breaking the law: Main character C.J. Johnson flees from police helicopters in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Breaking the law: Main character C.J. Johnson flees from police helicopters in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar Games

It's probably not a coincidence that 2000 was also the first year that Lenoir and Lowood taught "How They Got Game" at Stanford. In writing the syllabus, they had planned for a small seminar of fifteen to twenty students, Lowood says. But they were overwhelmed when more than 100 showed up. "They were climbing in through the windows. The fire marshal came," he recalls. "That just shows the kind of pent-up interest there was" in game studies. He remembers a particularly telling moment during one class discussion that first semester. A student was discussing ways in which the idea of character is different in the classic Nintendo games The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., Lowood recalls. "He stopped right in the middle of what he was saying and looked around. Everyone was listening to him intently. He said, 'God, I love this class.' "

Since that time the critical mass has continued to grow and expand, bringing with it a sense of legitimacy. In the early days, Juul says, "every paper we wrote started out with the question, 'Why should you study video games?' Now we don't have to do that anymore."

The resulting rise in critical scholarship has been reflected in the publishing world. Doug Sery, senior acquisitions editor for computer science, new media, and game studies at the MIT Press, published his first game-studies book in 2001. Now he estimates that he receives five to seven book proposals a month on the topic of video games. This year, he'll publish four. He has contracts with writers for five more and is considering another five to seven projects.

This past summer, the Library of Congress announced an initiative aimed at preserving games and real-time clips of online game environments for future study. Earlier in the year, the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin announced the creation of a new archive of video games and systems; marketing materials, magazines, and websites; and documents relating to the game-design business. (Although these are groundbreaking events, they came seven years after Lenoir and Lowood oversaw the creation of a massive video-game archive at Stanford that started with a donation of some 25,000 titles—representing nearly every game published commercially from the 1970s through 1993—from the family of an avid collector.)

Video-game scholar: Lenoir&squot;s interest in video games stemmed from research on military battle simulations and the "military-entertainment complex"

Video-game scholar: Lenoir's interest in video games stemmed from research on military battle simulations and the "military-entertainment complex". Megan Morr

The Digital Games Research Association, which describes itself as an "association for academics and professionals who research digital games and associated phenomena," drew 355 delegates from twenty-nine countries to its most recent biennial conference, held in Tokyo in September. The organization's website, which notifies members of other relevant video-game conferences around the world, listed seven for that month alone in addition to its own.

On the flip side, the video-gaming industry has also become more accepting of scholars, Juul says. In fact, in recent years, it has undertaken collaborations with many West Coast universities, along with the movie industry. "In the early days, they were skeptical of academics. They saw them as back-seat drivers." Now, Juul says, the industry values those educated in game studies not only for their skill at game design, but also for helping to develop a common industry language, analyze the industry's audience, and give the industry itself an additional layer of legitimacy.

A sampling of articles from a recent issue of Game Studies hints at the range of topics covered by the field—and the types of scholars covering them: A lecturer in new media and media theory at Victoria University in New Zealand writes on "the gamer addiction myth"; a Ph.D. candidate in computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania analyzes an early game called Combat; an avid gamer with a background in psychology compares personalities of people who play The Sims 2 with those of their avatars, or virtual counterparts; and a professor of Japanese studies writes on Japanese games and the global marketplace.

Other academics in the field have made names for themselves developing "serious" games—games created not for entertainment or commercial success but as vehicles for social critique or education. Some deal with war or famine. One game created by Ian Bogost, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of the game-design studio Persuasive Games, essentially lets the player see how boring it is to work at FedEx Kinko's.

Plugged in: Students like freshman Ben Arnstein are given class time toto try out the games they study

Plugged in: Students like freshman Ben Arnstein are given class time to try out the games they study. Megan Morr

Video games have also begun to gain a reputation as tools for research in more mainstream fields. Many universities have been active in posting academic resources and hosting meetings in Second Life, the online world that many compare to a video game (though others argue is not, because players do not seek to achieve some set purpose or objective). Duke's Office of Student Affairs has set up space there, as has the ISIS program.

In August, epidemiological researchers at Tufts University made national headlines with a journal article that explored the epidemic spread of a virtual virus called Corrupted Blood through the online game World of Warcraft (WoW). In the massively multiplayer game, thousands of players compete individually and in small "guilds." Their avatars fight monsters, explore new landscapes, and complete "quests" to earn currency and objects such as weapons and armor and to ascend to more challenging (and prestigious) levels. The corrupted blood, intended by the game's creators as a challenging obstacle for advanced players, was released in an area of the game accessible only to those players.

However, as the researchers wrote in The Lancet: Infectious Diseases, "Soon, the disease had spread to the densely populated capital cities of the fantasy world, causing high rates of mortality and, much more importantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of deadly disease." They analyzed the spread of the virtual outbreak and concluded that such phenomena could serve as useful models for scientists studying the spread of disease through human networks.

A similar article, written by a researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, appeared in the journal Epidemic. Not long after the results of these studies were released, the journal Science published an article hailing video-game environments, especially large-scale simulations like Second Life and massively multiplayer online role-playing games like WoW, as new models for scientific research.

Peter North, a senior who is an avid WoW player, remembers the virus well. "It was really cool," he says. "That's sort of a historical event for World of Warcraft players."

But while he recognizes that there are similarities between behavior in the virtual world of WoW and in real life, he cautions against making direct comparisons. In real life, he says, "nobody would think it was funny if they ran into a biohazard and then went and hugged all of their friends." North has done some research of his own aimed at comparing avatars' behavior in WoW to human behavior in the real world.

In one experiment, he tested avatars' tendency to bend to peer pressure. Anonymous players were recruited and asked to compare a weapon in one room with three in another, then to say which of the three it matched. Ten "confederates" were placed in the second room, all instructed to give the same wrong answer. He found that avatars were much more likely to give the right answer despite peer pressure than humans in a similar experiment. But he also found that the more time and energy an avatar had taken to build, the more likely the person behind it was to go with the group.

Another world: In Second Life, avatars enjoy a pool

Another world: In Second Life, avatars enjoy a pool. Copyright 2007, Linden Research Inc.

In a second experiment, he attempted to recreate the traditional "prisoner's dilemma" from economic game theory in WoW. In the traditional form, two alleged "criminal conspirators" are caught, isolated, and then offered reduced sentences in return for ratting on each other. The best collective result occurs if neither rats on the other, but there is always an incentive to rat on the other person. This changes if the game is administered repeatedly, and trust develops between the two players.

In his online version of the experiment, which he modified slightly to fit the WoW setting, North found that players usually just raced to rat on each other, even in repeated games. Followers of WoW argue that collaboration is absolutely necessary to achieving success in the game, but North speculates that "within virtual realms, people don't feel the same sense of consequence or responsibility for their actions. There is a definite distinction between a person and their avatar." He says he's interested in further studies examining the differences between how people make decisions and behave in virtual worlds and in real life.

Despite its rapid growth—and, ironically, in some ways because of it—the field of video-game studies still faces some major obstacles, not the least of which is finding a departmental home. Henry Lowood of Stanford and Tim Lenoir both came of age as academics studying the history of science just as the field was securing a permanent seat at the table. "It was a brand new discipline in the '50s, and just finally establishing itself in the '80s," Lowood says. "What took the history of science thirty years has been compressed into maybe three years in game studies.

"Universities are big battleships," he continues. "They're not designed to turn like a car. So with something like this, it's difficult for a university to respond. Does that mean that there have to be game studies departments? At least there has to be a faculty member in a department that studies it. So, in what department? Computer science? A humanities field? An arts field?" The multidisciplinary nature of the field that is in many ways a strength can thus also be seen as an organizational weakness, he says.

In addition, the field's rapid rise, as well as its focus on what is, essentially, popular culture—or by its own account, another "new media"—is sure to rub some in academe the wrong way. Negar Mottahedeh, an assistant professor of literature at Duke, sees a parallel between video-game studies and the more established discipline of film studies, which gained a foothold in American universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Film scholars who "read film in a cultural context or as part of an amalgamation of cultural forms" are often criticized by other academics for having "allowed for too much relativism and interpretation," says Mottahedeh, who teaches an "Introduction to Film" course. In other words, she says, they argue that "anybody can say anything about something, and it's right."

But Mottahedeh argues that context is important. A film like The Bourne Ultimatum may not be an instant classic in a traditional sense, but it's interesting to consider as a function of globalization and to "read" in the context of contemporary wars, she says. Considerations like these help to distinguish film studies from "film appreciation."

In the same way, video-game studies must continue to make a case for itself, says Victoria Szabo, program director for ISIS and another of the instructors for the Focus virtual-realities cluster. In order to make the full leap to academic legitimacy, she says, the discipline's canon of texts—both the scholarly writing and the games themselves—"must undergo lasting scrutiny."

"If you're looking for a range of exemplary texts that pass the test of time, game studies at this point may or may not fit the bill," she says. "If you say 'Pac-Man was a classic,' what does that really mean? That it was a technical milestone? That it was really popular? That people look back fondly on it?"

Those are questions that excite scholars like Juul, as well as students like Schwartz and Chou. They relish the opportunities present in this new scholarly landscape, as yet unexplored.