Blog Post

The Importance of Interactive Gaming Outside Game and Platform Studies

With the Humanities Gaming Institute coming up, I find myself trying to justify my attendance despite having no real desire to take part in game studies or platform studies.

My scholarly interest in gaming long pre-dates my awareness of platform/games studies.  In 2006, along with presenting a paper on the tension between Wikipedia and the academy, I also presented a rather ugly poster (which, it turns out, cannot be found on the archives of Wikimania 2006, due to a filing error, it appears--too many presenters with the initials EM) detailing the different methods for presenting spatial knowledge using a MediaWiki-like environment.  I argued that the Google Maps method leaves too little control to the user for editing and analysis, that a Gazetteer-like structure was already in place in Wikipedia, and that the best inspiration for developing a commons-based peer collaborative spatial environment was to model it after map-based strategy games.

Since then, I've written a couple papers on the use of map-based strategy games in the digital humanities, and presented one of those at DAC09, and I've tried my hand at writing board games, computer games and even a pen-and-paper RPG.  Naturally, this reflects a love for the idea of game mechanics and the art of abstraction found not only in Civilization or Final Fantasy or Call of Cthulhu but also in Risk and World in Flames.  But it also reflects an intuition that these methods of abstraction of chance and effect are an untapped resource for humanist scholars trying to abstract nuanced phenomena that more resembles the strangely compelling sanity system in Call of Cthulhu than it does the mathematical elegance of the Lotka-Volterra equation.

So, along with manuals from ESRI and O'Reilly, cartographic theory like Turnbull's Maps are Territories and case studies on Spatial History, I've also surrounded myself with the excellent Harrigan & Wardrip-Fruin edited First/Second/Third Person series, alongside various manuals for Civilization, FreeCiv and Seven Cities of Gold.  It feels like an entirely grounded and practical approach to these games, which I envision as just another form of spatial representation but integrated with lightweight simulation capabilities. We don't model as much as I think we should in the humanities, and using games as a basis for digital humanities modeling (as opposed, I think, to "Serious Games") is just one reason why digital humanities scholars who may not be interested in games studies per se should look at the practical value of this type of software. 

But even without repurposing games (or the gaming medium) just examining the way in which non-business, non-scientific software producers have abstracted space, time and meaning is valuable to those of us who attempt to do the same in a scholarly manner.  Huber's tripartite model of space (from his essay, "Epic Spatialities" in Third Person) revolutionized my conceptualization of representing place and event in spatial history.  His tripartite model didn't come from examining aboriginal Australian culture (as Turnbull's did) or from deep analysis of language and politics in Shang China (as Keightley does in The Ancestral Landscape) but from his experience with Final Fantasy.

I don't even like Final Fantasy.  I think it's silly.  I prefer archaic games like Seven Cities of Gold, which allow me to establish some kind of ascetic credibility in my integration of gaming into dry, serious, academic work.  And yet, Huber is absolutely right.  I've played a lot of Final Fantasy games (funny how that works with gaming, I think I've played more games that I don't like than the reverse) and it very elegantly represents place in the manner in which it is conceived of in literature, politics and society.  There seem, at least intuitively, to be a host of such lessons to be learned for spatial historians, text miners, data visualizers, curators, and anyone else in the humanities.  After all, it's an entire industry with a budget the likes of which we cannot imagine, directed toward producing digital media that deals with what we think of as traditional humanities concepts.



1 comment

I think being able to commandeer the technology behind computer/video gaming maps for modeling historical or even imagined spaces is really quite wonderful. It's one thing to read about something like France during the Middle Ages (or look at a flat, printed map in a book) but a whole other thing to live it, immerse yourself in it. There's a greater sense of authenticity when one can experience rather than passively absorb information about a place, a time period, a culture. That immediacy is so vital to really developing a deeper understand and appreciation for content, the place, the time period.

I teach Systems Analysis and we do a lot of modeling. Modeling is so important. When you model something you start to see things you might have missed in other forms of analysis (largely because there is usually so much information you have to contend with, it can be overwhelming). Without culling together all the information gathered in interviews, observations, document review (that constitute the system you are analyzing) into some sort of succinct yet involved representation of the event/system/situation, you can fail to truly grasp not only the big picture but also many of the details. There's something magical that happens when a model is created. It summarizes while exposing intricacies.  It's amazing how much you can miss or overlook because your attention was not specifically drawn to it in a model. A model has the ability to crystallize and focus attention in ways that other types of analysis don't.

So interesting ideas you have.