videogames, the humanities and judgment

As we move toward the end of course, it is time for some summative thoughts. I suppose one of my real dislikes about English and the humanities in general is our tendency to make summary judgments about issues. It is an odd contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, we are more than willingly, perhaps even obligated by our discipline, to recognize the uncertainty of interpretation; we will say that a poem or novel or film or painting could mean different things to different people (within reason of course). In part, this keeps us in business. Otherwise the meaning of artistic works could be settled once and for all! On the other hand, we are equally willing to pass judgments that we hold to be as certain as we deem our interpretations to be uncertain. We are quick to say this or that is good or bad, art or not art, racist or sexist, or something.

It is safe to say that videogames produce aesthetic experiences in humans (setting aside any judgment on the quality of those experiences) and that they circulate sociopolitical/cultural/ideological values (setting aside any judgment on those values).We may say the same of any artistic work, indeed any object that humans participated in making. These are the objects we tend to study across the humanities. In this respect they are as worthy of study as object.

However, there’s another glitch. Our traditional methods don’t allow us to study everything. Conventionally we have decided to study those things that we think are the “best” (another judgment): Shakespeare, for example. 40 years ago, we decided that what we had thought of as best was culturally biased (i.e. dead white guys), so we diversified our selection. But we didn’t get rid of the idea that we should study what was best; we just tried to shift our notion of what “best” meant. Alongside this move, we also started to pay more attention to pop culture (i.e. what wasn’t “best”) and the historical contexts of our objects (which also meant studying material that wasn’t “best” but could inform our understanding of the best objects).

I suppose that studying videogames could fit alongside pop cultural studies of popular movies, television, genre fiction, and so on. But I don’t see that as the context in a class on new media. Instead, our more general purpose is to investigate the cultural operation of emerging communications technologies: videogames just happens to be the example. Clearly we make judgments about videogames from video game reviews to studies on their psychological effects. But as a scholar I’m not interested in making those judgments myself; I am interested in understanding how those judgments are made. That is, I am interested in the mechanisms.

How do videogames produce aesthetic experiences? When we look at McGonigal or Galloway we get some answers to that question. We can consider human psychology or we might look at game mechanics, at gamic action as Galloway terms it. How do videogames circulate social values? Bogost offers us a plethora of different ways this happens. Nardi goes in depth into a single game to explore its social function.

So I ask you: what can we learn from studying videogames as humanists? How might emerging media shift our understanding of the purposes and methods of the humanities (purposes and methods invented and designed to operate in a print culture)?

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