Blog Post

Games Come to MLA

I was just on a great MLA panel chaired by Priscilla Wald on computer/video games and the humanities. Anne Balsamo gave her "Original Synners" paper in which she talked about the necessities for critical pedagogies that address digital issues. She began with a futuristic look at teaching in 2020, a humorous, scary, and visionary glance into a distributed future.

Peer-to-peer critical thinking is crucial for understanding the role of new technologies in our lives. I gave a paper on my experience in the Interface seminar at Duke learning to play my first-ever game, and the intriguing lessons in playing Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City. I don't see games as utopic by any means but, given the heavy load that Grand Theft Auto has been made to carry in our culture, as if it alone is responsible for virtually every criminal act committed by a minor in the last five years, neither do I see it as Evil Incarnate. Rather, there is a Kantian proportional ethics or code of conduct in GTA/LC reminiscent of noir novels and cinema, tv and movies such as The Godfather or The Sopranos (which GTA/LC parodies), and certain kinds of rap music where the rapper assumes a persona.

Going back to Anne's point, we can use video games pedagogically since they make visible many of the structures of inequality, racism, sexism, and so forth that are harder to see when they are simply part of the cultural air one breathes. Anna Everett's paper focused on the issue of racism in video games. She began with a clip of Jon Stewart making fun of a elderly white congressman who was trying to maintain that rich white kids didn't do bad things because of GTA . . . but poor black kids were driven to drugs and marauding because of GTA. Say what? Anne next analyzed GTA/San Andreas and the racial configurations there that concretize the worst stereotypes of race. She also proposed ways of using video games to analyze issues of racism, both ways that borrow theoretical constructs from film theory and that develop new constructs specifically for digital media. She ended by showing us examples of games that her own students had created to counter racist games or to expose the racism of popular games.

The panel ended with Doug Thomas's paper on the economics of MMOGS. The analysis build upon Edward Castranova's economic analysis of gaming with theoretical insights from cultural studies, Nietsche, and Foucault. Thomas presented information about both virtual and "real" economics of game creation, game distribution, and game play and then provided the best analysis of the significance of those complex economic relations that I've seen anywhere. Since this is part of a work-in-progress, I'm not going to steal his thunder by giving away the punchline but stay tuned for more work on this subject. Thomas wisely maintains that it is in understanding the intertwined economics of game play that we also have a better sense of the relationship of so-called real and so-called virtual worlds. Great stuff! This was a terrific panel. Too much was crammed into 75 minutes for anyone to be happy and one audience member came up at the end and wondered why a session that stressed interactivity so much had no interactivity . . . no time for questions, everyone on the panel having to rush, etc. I had no good answer for that except to say that maybe the conversation that began at MLA could continue in other interactive forums, like this one.


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