Blog Post

Video Games and The Disciplines

Today Cat Norris, a colleague of mine, presented her ongoing research on the activation of racial stereotypes in video games to a Dartmouth colloquium. Cat began with a discussion of existing research on the topic of aggression and gender-coded imagery to connect her own research on racial bias to existing research methods. Thus far her experiments have used white male subjects playing Grand Theft Auto and Halo to test the activation of racial stereotypes.

During the talk she revealed that just within one department (our own, Psychological and Brain Sciences) there are over three labs working with video games. That research combined with a recent hire, Mary Flanagan, a researcher and producer of socially aware video games, and an undergraduate English course, English 63.1, taught by Aden Evens, constitutes a pretty large number of people thinking about games for this relatively small campus.

Today?s colloquium intended to be interdisciplinary, although only a few people identified themselves as belonging to a department outside of Psychology. As someone straddling the disciplinary fence I spent most of the talk wondering what we might have to say to each other and how humanists might contribute to Cat?s research. One obvious area that we certainly could be of use is in critiquing the experiments? use of language. The first experiment discussed involved a ?missing word? task that would follow the playing of a video game such as GTA or Halo. The missing word task (actually a missing letter) presents the subject with a word such as ?_ail? and asks them to complete the word. Two possible words, ?Jail? and ?Fail,? are both coded as racially stereotypical language. In presenting ?positive? stereotypes two possible outcomes from the word completion for ?Str_ng? were ?Strong? and ?String.?  One critique might be that one of the words identified as stereotypical is directly related to the language of play and in the case of GTA ?Jail? is one of two likely outcomes (the other being death).

From the sketch I heard today of future experiments there appear many possible points for humanists and social scientists to collaborate; from a more nuanced concept of racism to a more complete reading of the game?s narrative. Are there HASTAC people out there studying video games? What do people in the humanities uniquely contribute and how do you 'read' games?


1 comment

I think one of the most important things the humanities can offer the study of video games is a theory of the nature of interactive narrative. A common sticking point in the games-as-art discussion is how to evaluate artistic expression when not only the effect on individual players may differ (this is true in any artistic medium) but the actual experience - the parts of the story that are seen - may differ. As the narrative elements of games become more interactive this becomes a larger issue. Older games relied on linear cut scenes or text to convey the story, creating essential two experiences - the gameplay and the story - which could be evaluated separately. But as branching story paths become the norm and games are able to track a players actions, even subtle ones, and affect the story accordingly, we need an entirely new way of thinking about what a gaming experience is.

We may see a shift in the future away from the current attitude in which game players and critics feel the need to explore every story avenue a game has to offer. If you have to make a choice between, say, saving one character or another, your average player will save the game before hand, make one choice and see the results, then reload and make the other choice. Depending on your interests this could be to keep the more desirable result or simply to see what would have happened. However there are developers, like Quantic Dream, who are trying to push the envelope of accountability in games by letting a game and its narrative continue regardless of "good" or "bad" player choices. Their upcoming game is purported to allow the game to continue even if the protagonist dies, with the player controlling the actions of various supporting characters.

How can such an experience be evaluated, espeically if a crucial part of the expereince is in not thinking that you can always go back and restart, or that you must see every possible outcome? Can the possiblity of choice along with forced consequences be an effective sandbox for evaluating or teaching ethical behavior? How can games tell a story in a way that would not be possible in other mediums? As an example of this last question, I am a fan of so-called survival-horror video games because they can invoke fear and anxiety in me in a way that horror films or novels can't. Because it is an active experience in which I shape the story and character (and need to keep her alive), my relationship with the terrifying elements in the game is quite different than just passively watching/reading about them. This is an area, in game design for example, where humanists and social scientists can converge to develop new modes of story telling that are only possible with extensive interaction by the viewer/player.