Participatory Play: Digital Games From Spacewar! to Virtual Peace

Welcome to the HASTAC Scholars forum on
digital games. Your hosts are Patrick Jagoda and Lindsey Andrews: HASTAC
Scholars and graduate students in the English department at Duke University.

In recent years, countless pundits have
criticized video games for promoting aggressive tendencies, antisocial behavior,
and serious addiction among children and teens. While digital games and
educational simulations have been linked repeatedly to active learning
benefits, fostering skills that range from individual real-time problem-solving
to large-group collaboration, critics continue to associate this interactive
medium with primarily harmful consequences. In September 2008, the Pew Internet
and American Life Project
released the first comprehensive survey about teens
and video games, which suggests that 97% of youth between the ages of 12 and 17
play digital games. If an overwhelming majority of teens and an increasing
number of adults are participating in everything from traditional games to
online synthetic worlds then the catastrophic representations of game play seem
significantly overstated. And figuring
out the actual parameters and potential implications of this medium becomes
more urgent than ever.

When gaming is discussed, violent
first-person shooters and military-themed titles are often the conversational
focal point. Historically, games from the 1962 Cold War era combat game Spacewar!
to the ultra-violent Doom series of the 1990s to the United States Army's 2002
public relations and training vehicle
received a great deal of press. While the genealogy of militaristic and violent
games is immensely important, it frequently displaces the focus from more
innovative approaches to interactive electronic games and media. For this
reason, we would like to center our discussion on game developments that have
been pushing the boundaries of digital interactive gameplay and re-imagining
the parameters of the medium.

The current MacArthur Foundation sponsored
"Virtual Peace: Turning Swords to Ploughshares" project serves as an
ideal case study of creative interventions into traditional game production. Virtual
transforms video game technology previously used for army training
into a humanitarian assistance training tool. Borne of a collaboration among
several departments at Duke University, the Duke-UNC Rotary Center, and Virtual
Heroes (a Durham, NC-based game developer), Virtual Peace offers a
game-environment that combines traditional, in-person role-playing games with
interactive media technologies.
Participants in the simulation attempt to organize crisis intervention
by taking on the roles of heads of international humanitarian organizations
such as UNICEF or Doctors without Borders, or of government officials involved
in the crises ? in this case, modeled on 1998?s devastating Hurricane
Mitch. The game expands on the
possibilities of traditional in-person role-playing by offering various
tracking features that can both score participants? abilities to reach tangible
goals and allow instructors a better opportunity to observe students?
negotiation skills. Virtual Peace also
expands the capacities of traditional video-game play by incorporating an
after-action review that allows students and teachers to examine together not
only the tangible goals reached, but also the processes by which they were

Beginning with notable exemplars of
imaginative game design, such as "Virtual Peace," we would like to encourage
thoughtful discussion and debate about electronic games. Following the ethic of
gaming, we invite participants to engage in a playful exchange regarding the
past, present, and future of gaming. Since the study and production of
electronic games takes place across numerous disciplines (from the humanities
to the sciences) and in different institutions (from commercial developers to
universities), we hope the discussion can be similarly wide-ranging.

To begin the conversation with our guests,
the HASTAC community, and other interested readers, we suggest a series of
questions that reflect not only pedagogical, but also theoretical,
methodological, and creative concerns. While the following questions serve as a
starting point, we urge participants to expand on the issues we raise and to
introduce their own:

  • How can digital games make useful social
    and political interventions? In what ways do single player mini-games (e.g.,
    titles developed by Ian Bogost and Gerard LaFond's Persuasive Games venture)
    make possible different types of socio-political action than Massively
    Multiplayer Online games (e.g., Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft)?
  • Will a greater number of innovative
    simulations and games break through as mainstream titles or will socially and
    politically leaning simulations emerge primarily from universities? In other
    words, are major game publishers turning to less traditional game types or do
    you foresee this type of software being produced primarily by projects such as Virtual
    or the USC Game Innovation Lab?
  • Without reducing the complicated history
    of electronic game production, how does Virtual Peace depart from multiplayer
    titles that are predicated on the fulfillment of violent objectives? How do you
    envision the future of nonviolent game production? Do you see war simulations
    and games invested in military maneuvers being supplemented with more
    innovative or educational simulations?
  • How important is the study of platforms
    and hardware to the understanding of electronic games and their broader social
  • How can the study of electronic games
    influence other areas of research throughout the humanities, social sciences,
    and sciences? What do you see as the ultimate implications of research into
    interactive media?
  • Does the culture of gaming, both at the
    level of production and play, suggest a useful model for scholarly
  • What kinds of methodological challenges
    have you faced in working through the history of digital games and other "new" media?
  • For those of you invested in the study
    of games, how do you use electronic games in the classroom? How might game
    theory be incorporated into broader curricula and pedagogy practices in the
  • Given the continued development of
    exciting and visually stimulating ? yet highly violent ? commercial games (such
    as the Grand Theft Auto series), how can you theorize or use these types
    of games in the classroom? How can
    these games help us better understand violence, transgressive acts, or
    rebellion in the context of youth culture?
  • What do you see as the major social,
    political, and cultural implications of changing online synthetic worlds? What
    types of benefits and challenges do these spaces (e.g., World of Warcraft,
    Lineage, and Second Life) introduce?

Please feel free to post your questions,
comments, and links. We look forward to a generative and exciting discussion.
Thank you to Erin and HASTAC for their generosity in helping us prepare this

Patrick and Lindsey


A great project! Here are some of the thoughts and questions that arose in my mind upon reading your description above:

  1. The question about whether political games will come from commercial or academic sources needs to take into account the business practices of the commercial games industry. The first-party licensing regime enforces soft-censorship in a way that is not immediately obvious on the surface. I'm actually currently embroiled in a dispute with a first-party around "offensive content" at the studio, and the dynamics of experiences like that are instructive (I'll be able to talk about my quarrel as soon as it's resolved :). This trend goes back 25 years, so there is plenty of historical example. That said, looking at how commercial games have been attempting to engage political questions will be instructive; for example, there have been at least two recent games that deal with private military contractors (Metal Gear Solid 4, Army of Two).
  2. It's not surprising that I'd appreciate the question of platforms, but I'd point out that the Virtual Peace project is a kind of platform study in practice: the Unreal Engine on which its built is among the most popular contemporary game engines, originally used for combat. These engines offer many useful affordances for physical interaction, but fewer for social interaction. Tracing these dissonances of use in the engine itself is a productive act. Another title worth looking at in this process is the recent release Mirror's Edge, which focuses on parkour-style movement. Often in that game, escape is a far better option than combat.
  3. I'm not sure the rhetoric of "ultra-violence" in the statements above resonates well with me. For example, Doom sits much more prominently in a history of realtime 3D graphics than one of violence (although it does include the latter), and one of the most interesting things about games like Grand Theft Auto is the way they contextualize such acts in a credible and interesting context and role.
  4. I'm ambivalent about the notion of gaming culture founding a model for academic culture, largely because I resist the concept of the "gamer" and "gamer culture" as an isolationist one. That said, the practice of connecting multiple sorts of expertise across many disciplines is appealing. Perhaps what I resist is the idea that this is a fully functional process in "gamer culture" in the first place, such that "influence" is a more complex process.
  5. Pedagogically, there is an opportunity to use games as a hook into seemingly distant historical and cultural contexts. That said, there has been some evidence that assuming "games literacy" among today's students can be an alienating idea for those who are in fact disinterested in them.

These responses are great, Ian, and hopefully will get a real conversation going. I especially want to respond to #3 because I am struck by the fact that what bothers pundits most about GTA is how "realistically" it replicates, in the agentive game space, social situations in America today. Now, that raises a fascinating issue. Are games only supposed to fabricate social inequities but not address them? Where is representation in the game world? Is the most disturbing issue that gamers have to immerse themselves in the inequalities that are suddenly made highly tangible and visible in a way that, in order cordoned off society, they might not be in ordinary, middle-class life? What a problematic idea that is! It is also fascinating to think about why games would be criticized in this way but not, say, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES or another novel that purports to represent in realistic fashion the inequalities and class frictions, intermixed with racial ones, of our society. Is there an implicit politics in the representation that sparks the controversy, reminiscent of the controversy of novelists such as Richard Wright who dared dramatize a slice of life that many Americans preferred to believe did not exist? What does playing a game mean in social terms and as a social action?


So many more ways I could address your questions and the ones raised by Patrick and Lindsey. Thank you all for raising them.


Quick remarks on questions:
1) I'm not sure why you are encasing the discussion of games within the parameters of the industry and so called serious games. Is there a reason why you don't consider artistic and activist uses of digital games? see for an example DeLappe's work: what
and his latest proposal for an alternative for America's army:
2) I'm also not sure how you define political games; It can be easly argued that all games are political (especially those that profile themselves as not political).
3) see the link to americasdiplomate (this is just one example, there are many more examples from artists using gaming as a political tool).
4) it is important, if just for the fact that the rapid technological pace makes platforms obsolete rapidly; this is generally an issue that curators of digital art wrestle with (see the game spiel museum in Berlin for an example of state founded conservation)
5) it already does, especially with the proliferation of platforms and contexts for gaming linking the industry to a variety of fields, including the military, health care, marketing, law, etc.
6)Again, I'm not sure what you are asking here? what culture of gaming? do you mean the corporate context of game production and play? if so, we are already immersed in such a model in the university (with slight variations from field to field).
7)Precisely the tendency to frame digital games as a new technology given to us by through the creative and innovative corporate world...a very eschewed view of the history of games.
8) I already do, I teach a class on radical media in which digital games as devices of artistic and activist expression figure predominantly (and I'm not the only one doing this).
9) You know, the question of violence and videogames is a political one...I can cite you a series of examples of violent high art that because of its classification as high art is not though of as violent...In relation to these discussions, Gonzalo Frasca once remarked that the bible is the source of violence, yet it is a sacred book found in every hotel drawer (a bit of a bizarre custom)...
9) One of the biggest challenges for me is to wrap my head around the fact that so many creative people are working and freely contributing their time an skills to the Linden Labs owned space...that is, without seemingly reflecting on what such a space represents in terms of its underlying economic social and political be continued...


Quick remarks on questions:

1) I'm not sure why you are encasing the discussion of games within the
parameters of the industry and so called serious games. Is there a
reason why you don't consider artistic and activist uses of digital
games? see for an example DeLappe's work: what
and his latest proposal for an alternative for America's army:

2) I'm also not sure how you define political games; It can be easly
argued that all games are political (especially those that profile
themselves as not political).

3) see the link to americasdiplomate
(this is just one example, there are many more examples from artists
using gaming as a political tool).

4) it is important, if just for the fact that the rapid technological
pace makes platforms obsolete rapidly; this is generally an issue that
curators of digital art wrestle with (see the game spiel museum in
Berlin for an example of state founded conservation)

5) it already does, especially with the proliferation of platforms and
contexts for gaming linking the industry to a variety of fields,
including the military, health care, marketing, law, etc.

6)Again, I'm not sure what you are asking here? what culture of gaming?
do you mean the corporate context of game production and play? if so,
we are already immersed in such a model in the university (with slight
variations from field to field).

7)Precisely the tendency to frame digital games as a new technology
given to us by through the creative and innovative corporate world...a
very eschewed view of the history of games.

8) I already do, I teach a class on radical media in which digital
games as devices of artistic and activist expression figure
predominantly (and I'm not the only one doing this).

9) You know, the
question of violence and videogames is a political one...I can cite you
a series of examples of violent high art that because of its
classification as high art is not though of as violent...In relation to
these discussions, Gonzalo Frasca once remarked that the bible is the
source of violence, yet it is a sacred book found in every hotel drawer
(a bit of a bizarre custom)...

10) One of the biggest challenges for me
is to wrap my head around the fact that so many creative people are
working and freely contributing their time an skills to the Linden Labs
owned space...that is, without seemingly reflecting on what such a
space represents in terms of its underlying economic social and
political be continued...


Hi Claudia!

This is some great feedback.  Your point #9 is one that especially resonates with me.  I think that generally "violence" as a concept, a form of representation, and mode of political action is limited and/or misunderstood -- especially outside of a particular academic or theoretical audience.  How do you understand the role of violence and violence in video games in relation to the political?  How do you fit it into a legacy of, say, violence in "high art"?  I'd be interested in how you portray and discuss these topics in your class.




In response to Cathy: one of the reasons for this is that objections to games like GTA often serve rhetorical purposes like the centrist values platforms of sometimes-left-leaning objectors like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman. In many (most?) cases, the objectors have never actually played the games they villify.


Hi Cathy and Ian,

Thank you both for your numerous comments. I'm particularly interested by the way you both problematize the reductive way in which certain games are criticized for violent content.

Cathy, I really appreciate the point that you make about dangerous representations. The reception of contemporary literary works (e.g., truly ultra-violent texts such as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) rarely entails the stigma from which allegedly violent games suffer. In the case of many violent texts deemed "literary," aesthetic, formal, and thematic elements supposedly make up for any dangers they might pose to readers. There are still critic-driven controversies, of course. But, in many cases, a reader who is thoughtful and sophisticated enough to read a truly literary work is expected not to misunderstand or misappropriate any violent representations, however gratuitous they may seem. Clearly, a different standard is at play with digital games.

But the point that both of you make cuts deeper. There are certain texts and media that are either ignored or considered controversial because of the inequalities they tackle or social critiques they produce. This is the case with novels that have approached elements of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and politics that have been, at various historical moments, largely ignored by mainstream culture. When it comes to games such as the Grand Theft Auto titles, there are ways to read these media in greater depth. While they are violent, in a sense, readings of their narratives, visuals, audio, gameplay, mise-en-scene, platforms, and reception produces a more complex picture of what the games represent and how they do it. Of course, as Ian points out, this requires a certain degree of media-specific literacy, which can never be taken for granted.

Patrick Jagoda


Hi Claudia,

You make a number of interesting points here. I think the definitions of politics, gaming culture, and other concepts are up for grabs. In fact, I hope that grappling with some of these terms and positing new ones will be one of the tasks of this forum.

While all games can certainly be considered political, given their various modes of production and consumption, I think there are useful distinctions to be drawn between games with explicit ideological agendas (e.g., America's Army) and games that, at least at a content level, do not purport to be political (e.g., puzzle games such as the ever-popular Tetris). I also think there are key differences between open-ended game worlds (e.g., MMORPGs that may contain or enable various forms of "political" action) and games produced to transmit particular political messages (e.g., some of the Persuasive Games titles or pseudo-games such as Newsgaming's fascinating September 12: A Toy World). All of these games, and many others, can be read as political. But I'm interested in the different types of effects these games can have and the means they use to achieve those effects (at the level of hardware, software, interface, narrative, etc.).

Also, I completely agree with your comment regarding Linden Labs. The lack of reflection about that space and its ownership, by many of its users, is astounding. While worlds such as Second Life continue to transform social interactions, these spaces also reproduce many of the same assumptions and sociopolitical systems that structure the non-game world. Virtual worlds could be experimental laboratories in which new political, social, economic, and educational models are created and tested. And some users treat online games in precisely this way. But the majority don't do so. Frequently the worst elements of capitalism are simply copied or exacerbated in these worlds. Existing economic models are reproduced rather than truly rethought. Certainly, the problems that you gesture toward, Claudia, regarding the ultimate ownership and operational model of the space itself is also a roadblock to a truly radical imagination.



In response to one of Patrick and Lindsey's original questions " ...are major game publishers turning to less traditional game types or do you foresee this type of software being produced primarily by projects such as Virtual Peace or the USC Game Innovation Lab?"

First, I think it's important to distinguish between a game and a simulation. Plenty of simulations claim to be games, and are in certain ways, but I think you have to look at the intention behind the rules before you can decide if it's a game or a simulation. This is important because mainstream game culture wants games, not simulations, and as long as the intention behind a production is for it to be a training exercise, it won't catch on (and therefore will only live on in an academic realm).

I've heard a lot of definitions applied to what is a game, and I'm not going to try and define it, but you know one when you see one and generally games are fun! A good simulation tries to imitate all the attributes of its subject, whether they are fun or not, and so projects such as Virtual Peace had better be fun if they want to catch on.

I think that in general, unless people enjoy something, i.e., it is fun, they will opt for the most efficient and direct way of acquiring knowledge. Learning a new piece of software is not always very direct and can sometimes be difficult, therefore if universities want to foster "socially constructive" digital media, they need to ask 1) Is this fun? 2)If it's not, then can it be done in an easier and more direct way? Forging ahead with digital media just for the sake of being modern is not a good plan.

Finally, as to the "less traditional game types" quote, game publishers have started to take more risks with new types of games. A couple of recent examples are Little Big Planet, Braid, and Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. These games are unusual and yet extremely fun, however, at the core they are games, not simulations (even Apollo Justice, which claims to put you in the shoes of an 'Ace Attorney').


Hi Joey,

The distinction that you draw between games and simulations is really useful. Certainly, these are terms that I occasionally use in a semi-interchangeable manner even though they can be quite distinct.

I wonder where the late 80s and early 90s Sims series (SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, etc.) would fall on this spectrum. While they're fun and addictive, these titles are fundamentally simulations. Of course, they offer both goal-oriented level modes (which are more game-like) and open-ended modes (which operate as extended simulations).

Given my own background in English, I'd also like to throw out the distinction between gaming and narrative (or simulation and narrative) that is often passed over by more textually-minded people. The narrative-based approaches to game studies that were popular in the 90s (and, at times, more appropriate given the structure of earlier role playing computer games, for example) frequently failed to differentiate between representation and simulation. Even so, there are interesting instances in which both elements are useful in game analyses. A focus on design, gameplay, and hardware is certainly important, but I find game theory even more compelling when it accounts for the representation that takes place in a game, simulation, or online world (e.g., landscape design, avatar options, narrative, and thematic organization). Even if we come to take game aesthetics and interface elements for granted, after playing a game for even a short time, they still influence our experience of play.

In any case, this is a great post. I wonder what people familiar with Virtual Peace think about its status as a simulation. Even if it resembles an experimental training exercise more than a game, does this "simulation" import the fun that is so central to games and play itself?



Exactly. This is one reason why, at Duke, as part of HASTAC's InFormation Year, we did a faculty seminar on Interface and encouraged all faculty to really master one video game. I am not a gamer---I don't even play Monopoly or Bridge or Go Fish or Golf, analogue old school games. But I became totally intrigued by the moral universe, as well as the graphic and haptic and motor interfaces in GTA. I was shocked that, as I read the scholarly literature on GTA, there was very little commentary of any kind about the retributive logic of the game. I was equally shocked that critique of the social hierarchies in the game stopped short of deriding those forms of social inequality in our society. A game that represents certain injustices and requires thinking how one survives within them is terrible but the social injustices themselves are not? What kind of thinking is that?! In the analog days, I think we'd call it h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y.


Joining in our discussion is the New York Times -----they have an article out today interviewing and discussing Mimi Ito's three-year ethnographic study, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, of how actual kids play actual video games. Here it is!


Hi everyone. Just wanted to jump in here as someone who was physically present for the early rollouts of Virtual Peace. I think one of the most interesting questions for us to consider within the context of "serious," "purposive," "academic" or whateveryouwannacallem games is the nature of virtual presence. Embodiment via an avatar is both seductive and endlessly frustrating. During the test we had students both work on their scenarios with avatars and in real life. The next step we have talked about is having people log in from truly distributed locations to see how it feels to play when you *are* your avatar, not you are you sitting next to someone and challenging the technology's echo-cancellation features. Too much static real and virtual distorts the message.

There is a fascination/horror that comes from interacting with an expressive avatar that takes the uncanny valley concept away from the questions associated with robots and their relative humanity, and instead into the realm of mechanical remediation and conscious/unconscious expression as it relates to human-human communication. In VPP you express approval by clicking a button that makes your avatar lean forward and nod in a stylized expression of happiness; you express anger by pounding your virtual fist on the table. Of course you also have vocal cues, but the visual component demands a limited repertoire of gestures and responses. Is this constraint liberatory in some way (maybe akin to the pleasures of genre fiction)? Is the conscious choice to express uncertainty via a shrug a gesture to be trusted? Or does it draw attention to the artificiality of the exercise? Part of my question is whether the limits force the user to surface responses in a kind of cognitive-therapeutic self-monitoring kind of moment of intentional performativity that might actually yield far better results than a RL interaction. In the face of carefully constructed simulation environments for structured interaction (=game?), should we reconsider RL as the gold standard for negotiation?

I keep wondering what would be lost or gained, if, for example, we were able to incorporate the new technologies that allow you to map actual physical expressions onto an avatar for realtime transmission. At that point should we just stick with video cameras with an eye towards closer and closer approximation of physical presence? Or is there some happy in-between moment where the fantasy world of online roleplay meets real life action that parallels the satisfaction of, say, a group taking out a mob boss, and leads to a useful, rather than inherently repressive, unity of purpose that can translate to positive RL effects? While we are at it, what if take the Virtual Heroes technologies further and add on heart rate monitors and the like, and translate these responses to some kind of transmogrified in-world representation? Could we create a truly "chilly" climate, and yet retain maintain the safe-space substrate that allows the tech-mediated conflict continue apace?


I'm going to make it my summer mission to investigate a few recommended alternative history simulations & other games pertinent to my study. Sadly, such
things are way too addictive for me when school is in session. I don't trust myself after that tumultuous year of compulsive Starcraft & UNIX scrabble!

I can contribute a bit regarding ancient games, however. I love modern games, electronic & otherwise, but I - like Patrick & Whitney - am very curious about the origins of board gaming as well as references to games in literature. There's a wonderful interdisciplinary group dedicated to game studies: the International Society for Board Game Studies. The founders of the society & its respective journal include a historian, an archaeologist, a psychologist, and a scholar with credentials & publications in both mathematics & East Asian languages/history. I've known about the society for awhile & I'm still amazed at the diversity within such a specialized (for lack of a better term) area of study!

Unfortunately most of the ancient games websites I've found contain misinformation despite displaying splendid pictures. If anyone knows of a well-documented (but well-designed!) site, please let me know!

Example of the significance of ancient games: epic heroes depicted gaming

When I originally decided to find out more about the social context in which ancient games were played, I expected to find references mainly centered upon children and tavern (or drinking-party) games. However, I quickly learned otherwise! There are many depictions of two preeminent Greek heroes - Achilles & Ajax - playing an ancient board game involving dice while the Trojan War presumably rages elsewhere. Two of my favorite versions of this scene include an amphora in the Vatican (c. 530-520 BCE) and an amphora at the Getty Museum (c. 510 BCE). In the Vatican amphora, you can make out the words issuing from the heroes mouths - Achilles exclaims, "Four!" (Gk: tes[s]era) and Ajax, "Three!" (Gk: tria).

The scene seems to lend these two iconic warriors an almost tragic humanity - the facial expressions & body positions show immersion in the game at hand, but the armor reminds us of the war raging outside. They are at once friends & enemies, legendary warriors & mortals who are powerless before Chance/Fate, involved in a meaningless game & about to enter a deadly one. We have numerous explicit references in Greek philosophy & tragedy to life as a game ruled by Chance/Fate. Additionally, the ancient Greeks used dice for divination - so the religious/prophetic overtones to this scene are especially striking.

The fact that we do know what will happen to the two men makes the scene all the more touching & tragic. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, is destined to die at a young age by the hand of Paris (who is always depicted as a coward), bur retains in death the honor he won as a warrior. After Achilles' death, Ajax competes in a speaking contest with Odysseus for the armor of Achilles. Ajax loses, goes insane (courtesy of Athena, whom he angered), and while in a delusional state he... slaughters a bunch of sheep, believing them to be Odysseus & the other Achaean generals. When he regains sanity, he feels humiliation so deep that - rather than live with his own shame & loss of honor - he commits suicide.

In some way our (or maybe just my?) human nature pleads with the two heroes to stay immersed in the game instead of reentering the war - perhaps this is slightly similar to a mother's fleeting wish for her child to remain young & uninitiated in adult matters. But we would not, could not consider Ajax & Achilles great heroes unless they returned to lead the Greeks to victory - and ultimately to die.

After considering this depiction of heroes gaming, I remembered that Patroclos also had a history of serious gaming! As a child, Patroclos kills another boy in a quarrel over a dice game (supposedly he did this "unwillingly"). Because of this incident, he & his father left their homeland for Phthia & Patrocles was raised alongside Achilles in the house of Peleus. Without the mishap with the dice (oh, and that murder), Patroclos & Achilles probably would not have been close.

Analyzing games in the context of other symbolic systems

Patrick, your comment about the significance of games in the context of power struggles and other cultural/political affairs is spot-on. One book I've been meaning to read in its entirety is Leslie Kurke's Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold, which examines an underlying imagery of metals & coinage in a variety of From the chapters I've read, it seems like a fascinating study of how the representative system of coinage (& its associations - politics, gift-exchange, class struggles, hierarchies of value, etc.) influenced other symbolic systems - games, writing & language, objectification of the other, & self-representation. It would be interesting to compare her analysis of ancient games to a psychological or socio-political analysis of modern gaming.

Does anyone have recommendations for such a treatment of modern games? I admit that I have not read much on modern psychology/politics of gaming & am unsure of the key scholars/commentators in this field.




I'm an undergraduate student at Duke University. I'm glad Patrick referred me to this generative discussion and I'll try to engage in some hopefully not too unproductive "participatory play" here.


Following jhenry's post...Maybe an interesting place to consider is the appeal of gaming and how it is similar or differs for different games/simulations and other media. This has some relevance to the questions of virtual presence raised by ves4. What distinguishes a fun game from one that is not and how does lead to the issues of "gaming addiction?" And will productive and educational games/simulations be able to retain whatever makes games fun? This also brings up the difficulty of discussing the of large number of different game genres that balance skill and strategy, social interaction and roleplay, exploration, story, and art/aesthetics. From a traditional standpoint, "gaming addiction" is viewed a negative phenomenon. Where exactly does the addiction stem from and can it be channeled into more productive and socially acceptable methods? Luis von Ahn is doing some very fascinating work in human computing and using games to solve computing problems.


I am not an expert on platform studies, but it is an important issue to note. The platform determines the audience and economic competition in gaming includes platform questions at its core. Games on console systems are different from those on personal computers and are different from games on portable handheld platforms. Portability of gaming may have implications of increasing the pervasiveness of gaming in daily life. Also, the recent phenomenon of the Nintendo Wii pushing the boundaries of interactive, actually physical gameplay is relevant to platform studies. The study of hardware and architecture may have implications for customized gaming or gaming centered on user-generated content. Many games offer a map or environment editor for users to design their own gaming experience. A significant example of this is the powerful world editors from the real-time strategy games developed by Blizzard. They have allowed users to create a multitude of radically different games that are run on the original software, some of which have rivaled the original retail games in popularity and spawned a genre of tower defense games that have been ported to Flash media and browser gaming and pulled a much broader audience.


Going along with Patrick's comments about unoriginal and unproductive economic models that are simulated in games, as well as the discussion about physical violence, another issue to consider might be the social constructs regarding racial and gender prejudice that are brought into virtual environments. Do virtual environments promote uncivil and discriminatory behavior that might not otherwise be expressed between individuals in RL? There is significant discussion involved around the impact games have on emotional anger (which Lindsey made a good point questioning the assumption of negativity) and tendency toward violence, which should consider the possible forwarding that games may promote regarding other potentially devastating issues of nonphysical abusive behavior. Unfortunately, virtual spaces may not be wholly utopian areas where anyone can freely be anything.


With respect to investigating the assumption that anger is automatically destructive; another specific example of where anger may be derived, along with anger at the representations and simulations of inequality, from might actually be from frustration in cooperative gaming. Cooperative gaming that promotes teamwork, and as a result, anger when one lets teammates down.


A number of interesting points here, aznjons. The question about racial and gender prejudice is an important addition to our discussion. What do those of you who work with new media and race theory think about the way this plays out in games?

At the extremes, of course, many modes of discrimination are translated into games. For example, in Ethnic Cleansing, a title released by Resistance Records in 2002, the player chooses either a Klansman or skinhead avatar and enters a ghetto littered with white supremacist propaganda. With gun in hand, the user proceeds to kill caricatured African American, Latino, and Jewish figures on the way to a "Jewish Control Center" in which Ariel Sharon, who is discovered plotting world domination, becomes the object of assassination. Certainly, this viciously and violently racist game is an extremist phenomenon. Though this game does suggest that it is becoming easier for particular interest groups and sects to adapt already-existing game engines to virtually any ideological ends. What do these types of games suggest for future game production trends?

Since Grand Theft Auto (a more mainstream example) has come up a few times in the discussion so far, what do you all think about the way that race operates in this game? Does the game problematically further certain racist stereotypes or does it complicate and challenge them? What about other games? In a broader sense, how do new media, such as electronic games, alter the way we think about race theory?

On another front, how do MMORPGs or online worlds, for example, help us think about gender in different ways?



Lindsey: How do you understand the role of violence and violence in video games in relation to the political? How do you fit it into a legacy of, say, violence in "high art"? I'd be interested in how you portray and discuss these topics in your class.
sorry for that end of semester time lapse...about your question of violence, videogames and politics: it has been useful for me to approach this question from a perspective that conceives of images as sets of relationships and play as a mode of negotiation. This perspective is historically grounded and can be related to recent work in media studies (see the work of Zielinsky on media archeology for instance).
The question of discourses tying violence and pornography with videogames has been systematically exploited for direct political purposes, see for instance "an history of videogames" by Kent in which he briefly discusses the relationship between the Senate hearings led by Lieberman and the the 1994 elections.
an example is for instance Waffa Bilal's work (see my blog post, and his book, which just came out from city lights)--his project is related to for instance Chris Burden's piece Shoot (1971) which is informed by the violence of the Vietnam war.
Another piece by Natalie Bookchin, Intruder, albeit a bit old now actually conflates high art with the popular medium of videogames to make a point about violence as a recurring theme in high art. She conflates Jorge Luis Borges story "intruder" with a series of videogames that have been linked to discourses about violence and pornography in public media. The piece is related to feminist concerns in relation to the binary division between high and low art, as an exclusionary categorization.
Patrick: I think there are useful distinctions to be drawn between games with explicit ideological agendas (e.g., America's Army) and games that, at least at a content level, do not purport to be political (e.g., puzzle games such as the ever-popular Tetris).
I agree that there are degrees of ideological agendas as you say; I don't understand though why you think about politics and videogames in relation to content only. If you look at it in historical terms Tetris emerges a highly politically charged game associated with cold war politics and cybernetic research (but even if you look at the different aesthetic iterations of tetris done at different times and for different platforms you will see that the "look" actually changes overtime--see the 1989 version for nintendo complete with a russian musical theme and recognizable Kremlin towers). Another example would be monopoly (as Frasca as pointed out)
Question: Who invented Monopoly?
Answer: Here's the answer according to the official Monopoly web site: "It was 1934, the height of the Depression, when Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, showed what he called the Monopoly game to the executives at Parker Brothers."
But there's more to the story.
Darrow's design was strikingly similar to one patented on January 5, 1904, by Lizzie J. Magie, a Quaker woman from Virginia. He game was called The Landlord's Game and was based on the philosophy that the renting of land and real estate produced an unearned increase in land values that profited a few individuals (landlords) rather than the majority of the people (tenants).
You can read more about Monopoly's origins in this article written by's Guide to Inventors, Mary Bellis.
My point with all this is to suggest that 'alternative' histories of games would put us a step closer to begin to understand games and play in as you put it 'political' terms.


Hi aznjons!


Thanks for your post -- lots of great points here.  I'm glad you brought up Wii, and the kind of physicality that's involved with the console.  One of the most popular games on the market this year is Wii Fit.  It seems obvious that the game is capitalizing on a couple of all the recent reports of childhood obesity, as well as the correlations that have been made between video game play and children's more sedentary lifestyles.  That being said, the current iteration of the game seems pretty basic to me (i've really only looked at it on the Nintendo website) -- jogging, simple yoga poses and basic step.  I wonder whether this will actually be effective (moreso, than say an aerobics or pilates DVD); and if it actually incorporates the element of "fun" that earlier posts were talking about. . . .  And, I wonder in what direction future Wii games will go.  As the current version of this game stands, I'd way rather play old-school Dance Dance Revolution. ;o)


 I also really like your question about race and gender.  Of course, typically, idealized representations of women are more frequently criticized than those of men, yet I think there's a whole set of questions to be raised about portrayals of masculinity, idealized male bodies, etc. . . and it seems like it could be quite productive to entertain that question in the light of video games.  I don't know what work has been done on this, but I'd be curious to read more.  

 In response to your question:  "Lindsey  




Hi Claudia!


Your post is really useful for me as it offers a great framework for how to think about approaching analysis of games as cultural artifacts within the classroom.  Discussing games in terms of relationships and negotiations offers a framework that makes political readings of games more accessible to my mind.


I wonder how other people  approach gaming within the classroom.  In what ways do you historicize games beyond the history of gaming proper?  And what other methods/frameworks have people used for approaching studying games-as-texts/artifacts?  More specifically, which games (especially mainstream games) have you found useful in the classroom?  I love the discussion on Tetris above. . . how have other people approached this (or how has it been approached in classes you've taken, if you haven't, yourself, taught video games).  I'd love to hear experiences of some of the other scholars on this topic as well....




I would hope it might be possible to promote awareness of discriminatory behavior and social inequality. Unfortunately, I haven't had the experience of playing either GTA or realistic modern FPS that might most directly demonstrate possibly political and social inequities.

I do understand that within certain skill games, inequity is fabricated in the game system. Some avatar or character types in strategy or role-playing games are stronger than others and often the gaming community demands balanced games, where many options are viable or there are systems of checks and balances. In order to meet these demands, game developers design games meticulously for fairness and release many software patches when inequities are discovered by the community through play. When different aspects of a game are unbalanced, may players complain and demand for adjustments to be made. They are certainly and vocally aware of these inequities within the game, though I am unsure how much translates to awareness in their own physical societies. However, the questions that Cathy and Lindsey brought up are very valid and fascinating to consider.

Also, I have observed that often in virtual gaming envrionments, especially competitive ones, there are many appalling verbal abuses made that two strangers might not make if they were playing a physical game such as a pickup sport. Experiencing this verbal abuse within the game from other players in a multiuser envrionment may be an example to address your question. The hostile, competitive environment in these games may not be as directly politically controversial and discriminatory as GTA but could also raise this awareness in a subcategory of the way you are suggesting.


I don't play or study video games (which I realize is a statement that sometimes annoys people who study games -- but it has to be said, so I don't misrepresent myself!), but this question of how to historicize games reminds me of a recent post on one of my favorite blogs, BibliOdyssey:

-- images from what we would call board games, stretching all the way back to 1588. Some of them quite beautiful!

Of course, the obvious questions came to mind as I was browsing through these images: How would these games have circulated? Were they cut out of books, or sold separately? Who made them? In what social settings were they used? And a few things struck me: 1) all of them present a cohesive world that transfers some form of meaning or onto simple mechanisms (die, pieces to be moved); 2) along the same lines, most of them have a cohesive internal aesthetic that involves some minimal fantasy and role-playing; and 3) maybe most importantly, they all innovate within what seems to be a fairly stable realm of practices that players would have "known," and which seemed to change slowly over time.

So how does this fit with the fascinating discussion about games and politics? I don't know. But games have a long history, and I'm sure Monopoly isn't the first with such interesting origins. While the content seems to change relatively easily to fit a game's social/political environment (the Tetris example), the mechanisms and structures of play seem -- at least in these early images of board games and, I'm guessing, in many video games -- more resistant to change, for the same reason the material structure of a book or a television is resistant to change. On the one hand, I'm inclined to say those structures are the most interesting to look at if we're talking politics and participation; on the other, I suspect this distinction between content (I know, what an awful word -- you wouldn't call a novel "book content!") and the mechanisms of play doesn't hold quite as well for video games. Maybe someone with a stronger background in games studies can do more with these beautiful old board games than me. :)


Thanks for that url to those beautiful games, Whitney. And thanks too for the aside about "content": the analogy to "book content" for a novel is right on the mark.


Whitney, your post raises a number of important points about a study of "games" that extends beyond more recent electronic instantiations. There are larger historical and structural questions that stretch, apparently, back to the early modern period. I imagine that thinking about other types of games, such as chess, would take us back even further. Also, if the fundamental ludic experience or activity of "play" is taken up, the scope of game studies becomes more expansive still. Play might express itself in non-game contexts, but it seems that a game is one of the key material and organizational apparatuses that structures play. As you usefully reminded me, games aren't particularly recent developments.

In any case, as you put it, it's fascinating to think about what aspects of games remain the same and which ones transform through various cultural movements. Moreover, it would be interesting to think about the institutions within which the board games that you shared with us developed and changed. The study of game "rules" seems to have important implications not only for the study of games or new media, but also for the examination of law, governance, and power itself.

Regarding history, there are also fascinating examples of work that takes up particular aspects of games without necessarily producing synchronic or diachronic readings of games as such. For instance, Colin Milburn recently gave a paper at SLSA in which he traced the figure of the "avatar" back to the Theosophical Society in the nineteenth century, following its application to more recent digital game avatars. For me, this type of approach is impressive because it avoids fetishizing that which is "new" and "innovative" about recent games. In other words, work such as Colin's historicizes different influences,
trends, and causal chains without constructing a teleology that
overprivileges the present. Also, instead of making the electronic game the ultimate object of study, this type of method attempts to tap into more extensive histories and deeper structures.



As someone who has played games for over 26 years, I can honestly say that I have never thought about the process or the representation of certain groups or races. This forum has been very enlightening. I have always simply thought as game playing as a way to have fun while working on my strategic planning skills (after all, that is what most games do, have you plan ways to get in and out of certain situations) and also as a means of relieving stress. So after reading all of these comments I am like, WOW.

Are the games violent? Yes, some of them are. Do they misrepresent and promote stereotypes? I would say No. Take GTA for example. Is it promoting a particular lifestyle? Yes. Stereotypes? No, because there are,in fact people who live that life and do those things. Now, if someone chooses to believe that Carl on GTA San Andreas represents every young man who grew up in an urban area,then that is his or her ignorance surfacing and it is that person's thought process that promotes sterotypes, not the game itself.

One thing that I did not see mentioned here is the fact that the gaming industry is just that, an industry. The goal is to make money, so if creating a game that is extremely violent and selling it to a certain demographic is going to make a million dollars, you can best believe that game will be on the shelves.

 I liked the comparisons that I read between gaming and violent art and books. The points were well taken, and I agree. The difference is with art and books people often stop to ponder or discuss the issues. There is no time for that when you are playing a game. I mean, I'm sure a gamer has never stopped to wonder "Should I have really blown that tank up" Why? Because he or she had three other people running behind them trying to shoot them and they were trying to get back to the helicopter. Well, I suppose they could have paused the game to think about it...but who does that...


Hey everyone,

Thanks to our intrepid discussion leaders and I'm enjoying reading all the comments, especially those circulating around violence (or, rather misconceptions surrounding violence and gaming) and the implications that gaming is targeted both due to its interactivity and it's "low" status as a genre.  I forget now who brought up Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," but they make a great point- I think part of the problem here is that games have yet to infiltrate classes on genre.  I could absolutely see teaching GTA in a class on Gangster cinema/TV down the road, or see teaching having students play "Dead Space" to discuss horror conventions.  This, perhaps, is one way to move beyond the gaming/violence debate and discuss what motivates the violence and what motivates us to participate in it.  Certainly, playing GTA could be seen as a form of micro-transgression...I've spent hours "rebelling" against the design of the game by ignoring the tasks entirely and driving around running people down and trying to outrun the cops.  But part of the fun is playing out your own cinematic car chase, being Cagney for a few minutes.  

While we're only just beginning to explore gaming as a medium, I wonder how often medium specificity stands in the way of broaching the conversations people here seem interested in: How much we construe GTA's violence as a commentary on social injustice, and do players consider their play political?  How we might read the moral choices of a game like Bioshock?  Etc.  I think one way of getting at these interesting questions is to reframe our discussion of games within generic codes (really, is GTA all that different from the immigrant sagas of 30s gangster flicks?) and THEN consider how the medium enhances these pleasures (or, cynically, how these pleasures might "cross the line" when we're allowed to embody and act out these generic codes).

Part of this calls for a breakdown of medium specificity in the classroom, which I realize is problematic.  But, in terms of video game studies, perhaps some integration into film and TV classes where students are already being asked to extrapolate the ties between genre and culture, and discussing texts as politicized objects, would help bring some of these excellent questions to the players themselves.


on the topic of beautiful old games cornell organized a show a few years ago, see:

as an aside, much research needs to be done on the games of the modernist avant-gardes in order to not take the old for the new, the futurists, surrealists, dada, lettrists, situationists, fluxus...are just a few of the groups that were immensly interested in games as paradigms for experimentation and for engaging the links between representation and politics.

Patrick: I would be interested in reading Colin Milburn's paper, sounds fascinating; could you post it or tell us more about it?


Thanks so much, Claudia. This is a great site. It is so useful to have old games to put new games into perspective . . . I also like your idea about the games of the modernist, futurists, etc, including the collaborative games.


Hi Claudia!


While I didn't see the actual paper that Patrick is talking about, Colin Milburn gave a similar talk to a class I was in last year.  I don't think the paper Patrick's talking about is published yet, but I'm sending an email to Prof. Milburn to ask him if he'd be interested in chiming in.




One of HASTAC/MacArthur's Digital Media & Learning winners, Greg Niemeyer of Black Cloud (, posted the following on his blog and agreed to post it here as an addition to the conversation about digital gaming. The original post is here:


Tron for Peace

The pageant-contest quality of the phrase notwithstanding, many serious game development efforts these days seek to make a game for world peace. Examples are Peacemaker ( or Virtual Peace. Armagetron (, on the other hand, is an old-school, rather violent racing game. It is a free clone of the classic Tron racing game. Players seek to cut each others? paths off in high-speed motorcycle races.


Last night, I played Armagetron in a LAN mode with AI and my hormonally wild, rather challenging, and beloved teenage son, Alex. After a few rounds of last-man-standing, Alex and I decided to bond against the two artificial intelligence (AI) racers in the game. We developed common strategies, reveled in victories, supported each other, and bonded about losses and mistakes. This does not happen every day between the two of us, partially because of the teenage phase, and partially because I am not that easy, either.


While Armagetron does not look or sound like a peace game, it nevertheless had a peace-giving effect on the real lives of the players. The game opened a pathway between two generations in the face of a ?major threat?. This is because it elicits a profound pattern of collaboration, which requires that players validate each others strengths and forgive each others weaknesses. We could call this pattern ?Ganging Up?, and that may sound like a bad thing, but it depends what we gang up on. We can gang up against bigotry, pollution or the dirty dishes in the sink.


Armagetron is also very fast. A round can last as short as a minute, and the race starts again. So players learn fast, too. For Alex and me to beat the AI, we first had to agree not to chase each other, then we had to come up with coherent and effective strategies, stick to agreements, and execute skillfully. Together, we defeated the simplest AI and it felt great.


Peace is the process of real people interacting productively in real time to overcome common challenges. The beauty of games is that we can abstract such complex patterns of social interaction from their real contexts, simplify them, speed them up, integrate them into playable core loops, and let the gameplay transform us into better people. For this to work, we don?t need a map of Israel and Palestine, or canned news. We also don?t need to go into a VR conference room and solve fake crises from the comfort Aeron chair simulations. It is not about the game assets. Rather, it is about how fully a player can engage with a rapidly changing gamestate, how a player can act as a game persona and lend that person her full range of emotions. And from there, what behaviors can a game not elicit among its players? Behaviors, which players would not engage in otherwise. Behaviors which, once experienced, players can abstract from the game and try out in real life.


So my son and I now do not go on wild motorcycle chases in the mean streets of Berkeley, CA. Instead, we try to do the dishes together in less than 10 minutes, and we laugh about it, and we talk about man stuff like confidence and over-confidence. All because of Tron.


Wow, awesome

Daniel Saltman


One of the interesting things about these old board games, and particularly how they are exhibited. It's too bad none of the rules or instructions are described... it's interesting how the gameboards mostly become visual art when shown in this fashion, and presumably as well in the exhibit, rather than as systems of rules. The Cornell exhibit, I think, did a better job contextualizing the play of the games, but the focus was still on game board as relic. 


Here's a good article from a game designer's perspective (industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite) about race in games:


Elizabeth Losh:

I might wonder why academic researchers necessarily want to get beyond military videogames so quickly in the way that the Virtual Peace project suggests they should with its seemingly laudable emphasis on diverting attention and resources to exclusively peacetime applications for game engines, intelligent agents, and interactive technologies. After all, there?s a lot to be said not only about how violence is represented but also about how it is rationalized and focusing on "violent objectives" may be enacting a kind of reductionistic instrumentalism that cuts of inquiry.

That complexity extends to things like game engines, as Ian points out, since the Unreal engine of Virtual Peace has its own problematic history as proprietary software as well. (My favorite story about this particular engine involves the development of the explicitly non-violent Tactical Iraqi Arabic language-learning game in which the design team, which didn't have access to the source code, was horrified to discover that even after the entire arsenal of weapons was removed from the potential grip of a character, it was still possible to stomp opponents into a gory mess.)

As a peace activist, I?m certainly no promoter of military incursions into foreign countries in the name of questionable strategic objectives, but I?ve been studying military videogames for the past four years, and I think that there is a lot there from which scholars of digital culture can learn, since the debates that take place during the game development process raise interesting issues about procedures, interfaces, play behaviors, verisimilitude, etc. As taxpaying citizens, I also think we should also be interested in the formalization of military procedures or plans for disaster preparedness into a set of rules of engagement that guide a game or simulation and the ways that idealized interactions may be different from messy emergent realities. (And also how conflict-resolution or humanitarian games and simulations might be similarly oversimplified.)

Finally, for humanists there are some interesting aspects of combat-oriented game play that have to do with the long philosophical tradition about how war crimes are defined or what constitutes a ?just war.? For example, whether World of Warcraft participants are raiding an in-world funeral to commemorate a RL player death or organizing vigilante actions against Chinese gold farmers, the issues about who is following the rules and who is breaking them may be murkier and more worthy of study than simplistic moralistic pronouncements about amoral gamers may be.


I feel that in immersive games, or even collaborative projects, where there is a common goal, often a certain kind of equality among participants can take place that is truly unparalleled in any other scenario. As an avid online multiplayer gamer ? World of Warcraft in particular (level 70 undead rogue) ? I?ve discovered that someone?s RL identity is not at all brought into the world of the game. All that players bring is the content they choose to create within the game. Race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, and age are all things that do not carry over to the game, because for the purposes of the game, they just don?t matter. What matters is what you?re doing within the game, and how you behave with other players through your avatar. This means that you can have a strategy-savvy twelve year-old leading and commanding groups of twenty, thirty, and even forty year-olds on complex missions within the game. Often voice communication is used for the exceedingly large groups (40+), but not really for the smaller (5-10 person) groups, so that all communication is done via keyboard. Yes, there may be a few giveaways even using the keyboard (syntax, spelling, etc) that might point towards a younger or older player, but on the whole you never really know who you?re ?questing? with. But this is the thing: it doesn?t matter! I have yet to really see a platform for collaboration or achieving common goals that so easily pushes aside nonessential characteristics of a person?s identity. For this reason there truly can exist equality almost completely devoid of any prejudices when people are able to immerse themselves in certain worlds where it really doesn?t matter if you believe in god or not or if you have any money or not, or if your body doesn?t perfectly match the Barbie or Ken specifications. If World of Warcraft can do this so effectively, I can envision so many future avenues for putting this equality to use in education as well as conflict-resolution and preemption.


Not sure how active this link is, since it seems the posts were all generated a couple of years back.  But anyway, here goes.  I am president of New York WEB Center, which integrates 21st C digital platforms into core curriculum subjects in Brooklyn High Schools.  We find they seem to work for at risk or failing youth.  Our hypothesis -- formed anecdotally; we hope to interest a university in conducting a study -- is that at risk youth tend to be nontraditional learners.  That is, they learn kinesthetically, and therefore are highly challenged by the traditional classroom learning environment.  Our approach breaks through the barrier by providing alternatives to pen, paper, lecture.

Anyway, we want to move into video game development that teaches math and science needed for the NY State Regents' Exam.  We are experimenting with a CSi type format.  It seems to capture the imagination of urban students.

Just wondered if anyone on this thread has experience/interest in the subject.