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Gaming the Digital Humanities


Our forum on video games arrives at a moment of identity crisis for the digital humanities. The aftermath of DH “superstar” debates about the qualifications for inclusion in the field at MLA 2011 left many questioning their academic identities, some applauding newly invigorated definitions, and a few simply wishing to leave well enough alone. For videogame studies, a discipline still seeking a place in this continuously shifting territory,

We wish to move forward in the conversation with a provocation from UC Santa Barbara English professor __Alan Liu in his recent blog post__ (based on a paper presented at “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities” panel at MLA11), in which he asks: “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” He goes on at length:

In the digital humanities, cultural criticism–in both its interpretive and advocacy modes–has been noticeably absent by comparison with the mainstream humanities or, even more strikingly, with “new media studies” (populated as the latter is by net critics, tactical media critics, hacktivists, and so on). We digital humanists develop tools, data, metadata, and archives critically; and we have also developed critical positions on the nature of such resources...But rarely do we extend the issues involved into the register of society, economics, politics, or culture in the vintage manner, for instance, of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). How the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital, for instance, is a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects with which I am familiar. Not even the clichéd forms of such issues–e.g., “the digital divide,” “privacy,” “copyright,” and so on–get much play.

Liu’s larger critique addresses “the lack of cultural criticism in the digital humanities” and “how the digital humanities will henceforth contribute methodologically to the humanities at large.” He pushes for a further development and understanding of how technologies, humanities, cultural analysis, and our intellectual labor can more fruitfully interconnect, intersect, and intervene in one another. In this vein, we would like to take Liu’s critical question and more specifically ask: “Where is Video Game Studies in the (Digital) Humanities?” and perhaps, “Where is cultural criticism in Game Studies?” We recognize an underdeveloped attention to and critical engagement with digital games that tends to silo them into particular disciplines, purposes, or relegates them to the margins of “low” or “pop” culture. This forum assumes the critical value of video games and seeks to address how games have contributed to the digital humanities, and how they might impact its future.

In November of 2008, HASTAC Scholars Patrick Jagoda and Lindsey Andrews (Duke) hosted the first forum on digital games called “__Participatory Play: Digital Games From Spacewar! to Virtual Peace__” encouraging 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.” Given the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of video game studies, the forum cast a wide net and gathered a healthy and diverse crop of responses. To begin to address our riff on Liu above, we would like to hone and develop what Jagoda and Andrews started as well as reorient, reconfigure some of the interventions:
  • How do video games matter (rather than do they matter or why they matter) and how do they matter (or not) to the digital humanities?
  • How might video games encourage discussions about the role and importance of “play” in the digital humanities?
  • How might we further interdisciplinary, multimodal approaches to video game studies (beyond the ludology/narratology debate, beyond the ethnography of players and synthetic worlds census-taking, beyond simple instrumentalization, beyond the “close” and “distant” debate)?
  • How might video games complicate and challenge notions of “digital natives” or “digital labor”? How might video game design (and play) be a critical practice?
  • How might video games help bridge the gap between analog and digital archives, between the “fun” and the “serious,” between cultural criticism and computational tools and methods?


To that end, we offer a simple and seemingly innocuous game as a common “text” or “object” for commentary, response, and analysis (click image to go to the game __//ImmorTall//__ by Pixelante):

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Play. Ponder. Post.

This forum is brought to you by Ergin Bulut (Education, University of Illinois), Alenda Chang, (Rhetoric, UC Berkeley), Amanda Phillips (English at UC Santa Barbara), Ryan Woldruff (English, University of Tennessee), and the __Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate intereste group__ at the University of Washington (UW) represented by Michael Barthel (Communication), Megan Bertelsen, (Comparative Literature), __Edmond Chang__ (English), Theresa Horstman (Learning Sciences), Terrence Schenold (English), and Timothy Welsh (English).

For further thoughts and provocations, see Michael Abbot’s “__Backlash__” at The Brainy Gamer, Ian Bogost’s “__Persuasive Games: Taking Bully Seriously__” at Serious Games Source, the Entertainment Software Association’s “__Industry Facts__,” Jane McGonigal’s February 2010 TED Talk “__Gaming Can Make A Better World__,” Eric Zimmerman’s “__Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century__” in Video Game Theory Reader Two, and the following from The Escapist on “__Diversity__”:

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