Public history Digital history & historiography

Video games as a real object of study: Some lessons from the Gamescom Congress 2017

Video games as a real object of study: Some lessons from the Gamescom Congress 2017
Can video games be a serious research topic or are they only entertainment products? At the Gamescom Congress in Cologne, a series of talks and panel discussions were dedicated to video games from many different perspectives. In this blogpost, I will discuss some of them illustrating that video games can and should be taken seriously.

To the larger public, the annual Gamescom in Cologne, which took place from 23rd to 26th August, is mostly known as an international fair where visitors and game-aficionados can try out new or yet unreleased games, as well as testing technological gimmicks and innovative ways of gameplay. However, the Gamescom also hosted a congress on the 23rd August, mostly ignored by the larger public, consisting of talks and panel discussions, and taking place on the same premises in a distinct area. In the following, I will take a closer look at three conferences that, in my opinion, were not only thought-provoking, but also showed that video games are more than just pure entertainment products.

The reality of video games: a philosophical approach

First, video games are part of reality (Wirklichkeit), as explained by German philosopher Markus Gabriel (University of Bonn). His lecture was a critique of the materialism prevalent in our societies, according to the philosopher the most widely spread world view (Weltanschauung). Materialism only considers tangible objects as being real. Thus, the human spirit is less real than, for instance, the human brain. For Gabriel, this is a very narrow and short-sighted view on reality: in physics, elementary particles are also real and exist, though we cannot touch them. Human beings are spiritual beings (geistige Lebewesen), which means that if they believe in materialism, they consequently also think that they are less real. As an illustration, Gabriel used Super Mario: according to materialism, Super Mario does not exist, but only the pixels that create the impression of a video game. This would mean that video games are only a mathematically describable sequence of pixels that, via our brain processes, create the impression of Super Mario. But if video games are only that, then human beings would also only consist of a pile of cells, which is not true. Furthermore, Gabriel argued that the reality is defined by the relations between causes and effects. This is true of video games, which can have an economic impact via monetary fluxes. Video games also include an interactive dimension, which differs them, for instance, from God (a subject that has been often treated in (Western) philosophy and theology). Video games react to us, and they are an objectified imagination (objektivierte Einbildungskraft), which means that the images can be shared and seen by more than one. Indeed, if someone thinks of a Caribbean sand beach, this form of imagination is not objectified, as others cannot see this image. Video games function differently: the imaginary space is shared and can even be transformed. In video games, we can try out images of what we would like to be. Here, Gabriel refers to the scenic existence (szenische Existenz) of human beings, and every scene is subjugated to a certain set of rules. Video games allow us to extend the scenic repertoire and test new possibilities of freedom. In his concluding remarks, Gabriel insists that a new theory of human thinking is necessary, if we do not want to shut ourselves off from reality. Martin Luther already said that humans think in images, and according to Gabriel, our thinking is not a simple calculation. If we continue to believe in a very narrow definition of reality, we will also continue to foster the “crisis of reality” we live in nowadays, convinced that we only need more of the tangible ‘stuff’ (walls, military, etc.).

A medication for the soul: Video games and their impact on society

If Gabriel argued that video games are part of reality, the talk by British Youtuber Matt Lees has certainly proved this point. By taking the cultural conflicts in the Western world and the resurgence of irrational thinking as a starting point, Lees argued that games, through the ideas, fantasies and messages they sell, could have a positive impact on society and on the future generations. Yet, this has not been the case over the last years, as many games were made for young males and sold ideas of empowerment and dominance. For Lees, there is not even a meaningful difference between mobile phone games and social media, “both engage us temporarily”, and, as he added later, “Twitter is one of the most addictive games in the world”. Games are a “great distraction”, “a medication for the soul”, which is not an issue in itself. Yet, it becomes problematic when games are consumed for a very long time, and convey a certain type of messages. Lees used the example of Gamergate, a harassment campaign in 2014 targeting women in the video games industry.1 For Lees, it proved that games culture are a soft target for far-right movements, largely ignored and sidelined in the industry. Though the harassment campaign did not cause fascism, it was part of a longer evolution, which led to the alt-right movement entering the White House. If games are not responsible for fascism, Lees stressed that they are, however, “cultural complicit”. Concerning the content of games, violence and aggression without context are an issue, as well as the insistence on the fact that games do not want to make a political statement. Thus, they amplify a culture of false equivalence. Yet, other “fantasies” are available to make a positive change, such as collaboration, growth, and trust, instead of ideas of empowering. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s quote “the medium is the message”, Lees argued that “mechanics are the message”. We need controversial games, games that show, by the mechanics they use, that racism is bad, or that meritocracy (Lees used the example of buying houses in games) is not the only fantasy that exists. He urged in his last part developers as well as vendors to think more critically about what they produce/sell, the messages conveyed, the implicit and explicit messages, the fantasies sold.

Video games as art

Even if Lees’ talk was much more political than the other two discussed here, it showed that games are not disconnected from the rest of the world, and that they can be examined in a more critical fashion. As such, they should also be considered as art – which leads us to the third talk I would like to discuss. Paul Galloway, from the design and architecture department at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), certainly agrees with the idea of video games being art, as they are included in the institution’s permanent exhibition. For the MoMA, modern creativity takes many different forms of expression, and museums are “charged with representing the art of our time”, to which belong video games. This has also raised questions of what is art (questions that have existed for a very long time) and artists are actively challenging us to think about this issue, as they push us to accept new art forms. Galloway pointed out that tools are used to make art, and among them machines, like a camera in the case of photography or cinema, where “technology and expression are intertwined”. As technology is changing rapidly, designers help us to use it, by making adequate interfaces, from an ATM machine to video games. The latter should be appreciated as art, analysed with the same critical spirit than any other artwork. Games can speak to us, and Galloway used in this context the example of Space Invaders, which relates to the Second World War and the drama of war more generally; just as Picasso, for instance, has dealt with the war in his painting Guernica. The wall between game design and art becomes fuzzier, as illustrated by the examples cited by Galloway. Papers, Please, a game where the player has to decide whether to let in people in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe and identify terrorists by just looking at documents, is “not a fun game at all”, but, as Galloway pointed out,

art does not have to be beautiful, and games do not have to be fun.

A further aspect mentioned by Galloway concerns the past of the video games and the documentation of it. For Galloway, the museum is “a place where the present and the past have a dialogue”. The MoMA wanted to begin with the past of video games, to honour the pioneers (such as Ralph Baer and his Magnavox Odyssey; Alan Alcorn, co-founder of Atari and creator of Pong; or Alexey Pajitnov, designer of Tetris), who often remain unknown to the larger public, even if their games influenced a whole generation. Many efforts are being invested in oral history, to collect and document stories on the history of video games, especially as the pioneers are getting older. In the follow-up discussion, one listener asked what is considered as art and what not. Galloway used a pragmatic approach: art is a label that the viewer applies. It reminds me of the approach used when analysing documentaries: there too, the label ‘documentary’ is applied by the public and the critics. Indeed, even ‘video games’ were not clearly defined (just like the term ‘culture’, regularly popping up). When is a game a game? If even Twitter is as video game, then the term is applied in a very broad sense (which does not make it necessarily more wrong). Is a Twitter project such as @RealTimeWW1 by the students of the Master in European Contemporary History at the University of Luxembourg a video game? After all, it allows for interactivity and tells stories.

For my own research on cultural policy, the three talks discussed in this blogpost were of rather limited interest. Nevertheless, they provided food for thought and invited the public to look at video games differently, not only as entertainment products to have fun with, but also as an object of study with a real impact on society and culture. Indeed, the fact that video games should be considered as being part of reality must also come as a relief to scholars researching on the topic: who would like to find out that what he/she is analysing does not belong to the realm of the real world? I think that the three talks showed the potential of video games to be a compelling object of study, from a philosophical, social, and cultural point of view. Though a historiographic perspective was largely missing (except in Galloway’s talk), it is a subject that should not be ignored by historians. The latter, and even more so those engaged in DH projects, should acknowledge video games, and recognize their importance, especially as boundaries not only between game design and art become fuzzier, but also between game design and education, or entertainment and history.1 (Re)creating virtual spaces is not only a feature of video games, but also at the core of many projects carried out by historians, archaeologists, designers and computer scientists – even if, in both cases, the aims might differ. Video games are real, because they influence whole generations, convey messages, and are included in art museum’s exhibitions. They also need to be real objects of study in social and human sciences, to analyse critically the discourses they contain, or to experiment with new ways of storytelling – which includes learning from failures and testing their limits.

  • 1. In Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture (2009), Jerome de Groot dedicates a chapter to history games. As he explains, "Millions of gamers worldwide engage with the past through their immersion in these virtual and ludic worlds, attaining some kind of - albeit skewed - historical awareness through an active engagement with a representation of the past." (p. 133).