Last week I attended a fantastic talk given by Mary Flanagan, artist, game designer and professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College. In the talk, part of Nick Montfort's Purple Blurb series at MIT, Mary spoke about her artistic practice, and while I can't sum up everything she said, I wanted to raise a few themes that came up and alert to you one of her current projects, Metadata Games, a multi-player, Internet-based game in which players will compete to add keywords and descriptive data tags to library and archival databases. I encourage you all to hear Mary speak if she's ever in your area. Also, you can check out some of her projects and games on her website. Some of her work can be seen on YouTube as well.
I must admit that I am not a video gamer, and the extent of my computer game experience is hours of Oregon Trail in middle school. For whatever reason (perhaps to be explored in another blog post) I never got into playing video games nor for that matter board games. However, as a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, I am surrounded by people who think about and research games and play as a mode of engagement. A few years ago, I wouldn't have considered digital games to be a rich form of creative expression. Games are still widely seen as utilitarian somehow, and therefore at odds, with art practice or intellectual rigor. However, if we think about games, for instance, as the creation and exploration of systems that necessarily embed aesthetic and moral dimensions, it makes sense that games could, and should, be seen as a form of creative practice.
The art, games, and writing of Mary Flanagan engage with the current ways and histories of how technology not only surrounds us, but embeds itself in our daily lives. Technologies like databases, game consoles, and virtual worlds become the subject and means to explore creative potential, to find ruptures and reveal them for exploration. Her talk made me eager to read her latest book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design which traces a history of alternative game play including avant-garde art practices, traditionally female modes of game play, (like playing with dolls) as well as more recent socially committed game projects, like Persuasive Games.
Also of great interest to the HASTAC community is one of her current projects that recently received an NEH-Office of Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, Metadata Games -- An Open Source Electronic Game for Archival Data Systems. The project is a collaboration between the games lab that Mary directs, Tiltfactor, and the Dartmouth College Libraries. According to archivist Peter Carini of Dartmouth's Rauner Special Collections Library, (as quoted in a press release), "If successful this project will bring archival images and possibly other documents into the gaming sphere and thus to a broader audience. If the project succeeds in the way we hope, it will also provide a way to gain deeper and richer content related to historical materials. More perspectives will produce broader search terms and make it easier for researchers to find what they are looking for. We have more images and more materials than we can adequately describe in a lifetime. Even if we had the staff and the time, librarians and archivists bring their own, naturally limited perspectives to the description of their collections. Offering these images up to a broader community for interpretation only serves the public and research community."
It seems clear that any way you look at, digital games, whether as creative expression, intellectual exercise, or collaborative tool, are a constituent part of the emerging field of digital humanities.