Video games make inroads in academia

NEW YORK -- Ever yearn to study "Tetris" as a metaphor for American consumerism? Or write a paper on narrative structure in the horror action game "Silent Hill"? How about ponder "Grand Theft Auto III," infamous for its violent bent, as an examination of the human condition?
Too bad. Someone already has.
Rejecting the stigma that games are only for kids, researchers around the world are making computer games the subject of serious academic pursuit alongside literature, music and art. They are staking out space in universities -- with Ph.D. programs, research centers and online journals.
Game studies (or "ludology," as it's known, from the Latin for "game"), has spawned a new class of academics who devote themselves to analyzing how the wildly popular form of entertainment tells stories -- and what it reveals about how we express ourselves.
"Games are found in Egyptian paintings from 4,000 years ago, and digital games connect us back to that very old and rich tradition that we have not paid enough attention to," said Janet Murray, director of Georgia Tech's graduate program in digital media. "They offer us, like the birth of film, a whole new palette for expressing the human condition."
Widely popular
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 50 percent of Americans over the age of 6 play computer games, and the industry had $11.4 billion in sales in 2003, more than the film industry. Last year, 63 percent of U.S. parents said they planned to buy a video game.
So why shouldn't games merit serious academic attention?
Researchers have long studied a few well-worn topics in games, particularly their violence and effect on social interaction. But newer, more sophisticated games, from "The Sims" to "EverQuest," take advantage of growing computer power to give players far more choices -- and more profound experiences.
"If we were 25 years in the history of motion pictures and the only question that was being asked was whether or not they were violent, we would think they were missing some important questions," said Henry Jenkins, a leading game researcher and head of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Stanford hosted a conference this month on storytelling in games, and Princeton weighs in with a March conference examining why gaming has drawn so little sophisticated critical inquiry.
The field has its own research group (the Digital Games Research Association) and a peer-reviewed online critical journal, Game Studies.
Doctorate degree
In Copenhagen, Denmark, the IT University has established the Center of Computer Games Research, which just granted its first doctorate, to Jesper Juul.
Juul appears to be the first person anywhere to ever get his doctorate exclusively in video-game studies. His dissertation "Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds" seeks to define what video games are, and how academics ought to go about studying them.
"I would say that video games merit much more analysis than novels or movies simply because they are less understood," Juul said.
In the United States, some of the most influential work is being done by Murray, at Georgia Tech, and by MIT's Jenkins, who works with game producer Electronic Arts Inc. to discuss issues such as narrative, dramatic tension and effective music.
Game designers study how Homer told "The Iliad," or ask why violence in "The Odyssey" is more acceptable than violence in "Grand Theft Auto."
There is also a handful of small game developers who are both theorists and designers -- and use their products to toy with the notion of games. For example, New York-based GameLab recently produced "Arcadia," which has gamers play four rudimentary games -- reminiscent of old-school titles such as "Pong" or "Pole Position" -- all at the same time.
"What we try to do is provide not a single way of looking at games but a whole series of ways," said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab. "We would like to have an audience that thinks about games as more than boy-power fantasies."
Changing perception
Some in the industry, however, are not so sure games will ever mature. They fear games could be a dead end like comic books -- valuable as a social phenomenon, but outside of a select few titles like Art Spiegelman's "Maus," not worth a great deal of individual study.
That's where academics think they play an important role. By raising the bar on game criticism and analysis, they hope to also raise the bar on how games are made and how they are perceived by the public -- and the courts.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that games must be considered free speech like literature.
But since then, the gruesome video game "Manhunt" was banned in New Zealand, and the "Grand Theft Auto" series has become the subject of a $246 million lawsuit filed in the United States by families of two people shot by teenagers allegedly inspired by the game.
"If you're on trial against violent video games and you can call a Harvard or MIT professor to defend you, that's much better than having some video-game designer who is 21 years old," said game researcher Gonzalo Frasca, who designed a computer game for Howard Dean's presidential campaign.
"There is this stereotype that it's a very sophomoric male industry -- and it is -- but slowly that's changing."