Can video games be art? Tools for education? Instruments for change?
Ed Chang and Timothy Welsh tend to think so. But more to the point, they say, video games are culturally significant and should be studied in greater depth here at the UW.
That’s why they and four others formed a new Graduate Interest Group called Keywords for Video Game Studies. The group seeks to increase academic engagement with video games through a series of campus meetings and workshops this year, culminating in a daylong colloquium in the spring. (Learn more and see a schedule at the group’s website.
Welsh and Chang, who are graduate students in the English Department, are joined in the group by Terry Schenold, also from English; and Michael Barthel of communications, Megan Bertelsen of comparative literature and Theresa Horstman of education. They are all gamers as well as academics. The group grew from the Critical Gaming Project, a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the UW that offers online resources for the critical study of digital games and supports scholars working in that area.
“We’re too willing to relegate (video games) to the domain of play — fun, entertainment, a juvenile avocation,” said Chang. “That’s part of the main problem.”
Keywords for Video Games, he said, seeks to encourage “more institutional support for the study of video games across the disciplines,” especially given that institutions nationwide now have degree-granting programs in digital media, even in video games themselves.
Chang said in a news release distributed by the group, “Part of the goal of the (group) is to make video game studies more visible on campus, to show that there’s already a lot of interest and work in games going on, and to get people to network, collaborate, and keep doing what they do.”
The Keywords group has already met with a certain amount of success. It was one of three to receive up to $1,000 in funding from the Simpson Center for the Humanities (the other two were the Asian American Studies Research Collective and the Queer+Public+Pedagogy group). Also, its six members have been named to represent the Simpson Center as this year’s HASTAC Scholars. HASTAC — which stands for the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory — is an open network of scholars, artists, scientists and social scientists from about 100 institutions dedicated to collaboration across disciplines for creative uses of technology. The recognition brings with it a small fellowship for each of the six.
Keywords for Video Game Studies will hold six workshops this year, leading up to a daylong event in May that will bring together students, faculty, game players and developers and community members.
Video games have been in the news lately, with a controversy over the game Medal of Honor allowing players to take the role of Taliban insurgents battling American troops in an Afghanistan setting, and then removing that option after negative publicity. (See New York Times stories here and here). Also, film critic Roger Ebert sparked much online discussion months back when he famously proclaimed that video games “can never be art.” (Catch up with that discussion here.)
Welsh and Chang said their students sometimes get upset with them when class time turns to intellectually analyzing video games. Chang said, “They want to play the games — they get mad because we take the fun out of it.”
Some video games are still designed on the “first-person shooter” model set by Doom and others years ago, where the player moves through settings that are little more than elaborately gory shooting galleries. Other games such as Grand Theft Auto have been criticized — condemned outright by many — for violence and brutally negative stereotypes of race and gender.
Chang said studying games academically could lead to a more enlightened approach to their creation. “If we find a way to marry our interests in computer science, engineering and humanities, it would be interesting to produce some sort of interdisciplinary works where we not only study games but also start thinking about how to make games where you don’t just shoot the crap out of everything. Even first-person shooter games are more complicated than just that.”
Welsh agreed, saying it would be interesting to work with designers to make games with better messages. “The goal is not just to sit here and pick apart games, but to have influence in how games of the future are designed.” (Read more of his views here.)
But back to the question: Can they be art?
Welsh said though he believes the answer is yes, he tends to ask in return: Can video games comment on society — on life and the human condition?
And beyond that, how do we define art?
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