All posts by Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo

video games and violence

An article on New Zealand’s The New Age reports on a study by Matthew Grizzard, assistant professor of communication, that showed that playing a violent video game could actually encourage players to make good moral choices. “Rather than leading players to become less moral, this research suggests that violent video-game play may actually lead to increased moral sensitivity,” he said. Articles about the research also appeared on Metro New York, Free Malaysia Today and Game Revolution.

Countdown to Final Project Submission

I’ve created a new category called “Final Projects.” Please post your projects here.  If you have written a traditional academic essay, use the “add media” button when creating a new post to upload your final paper as a Word Doc or PDF (your choice). If you are doing a slidecast (which should output as a video) you can upload it here or you can post it on YouTube and embed it here (if you need help, ask me). If you’ve done a website or something, then you can just put in a link.

Remember that your deadline is Thursday, July 3rd at 11:59pm.

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)?

Game Review and Game Analysis Rubrics

I have attached the rubrics I am using to evaluate your game reviews and game analyses. As you know, your grades are already determined by your grading contract, so there won’t be a grade attached to these evaluations. However I thought it would be appropriate for you to receive some evaluation.

If you submitted a review and/or an analysis, you will receive some feedback from me in the next day or so.


geek culture and politics

Clearly, Ready Player One is a work of popular fiction and not one I offer to you as an object of great literary achievement of the kind you might typically read in a literature course. It does, however, present us with the history of geek culture, and not as a historian might present it, but as it was experienced by someone inside it (Cline). 30 years ago, few people would have imagined that our world would become infused with information technologies. At the dawn of the personal computing era no one would have guessed that the average American would be a daily computer user. No one would have thought that geeky kids sitting in their garages with motherboards would one day end up being among the wealthiest people in the world and wholly transform culture on a global scale. Today, it is commonplace to look upon geek culture as white, male, and elitist (though that certainly overlooks the significant Asian influences that we see in the novel, though on the flipside, it is interesting to trace the American influence on post-WWII Japan, particularly in terms of animé). Of course such complaints rely upon generalizations that we can always uncover as faulty (e.g. not all geeks are white and male, not all white males are geeks). If we were to push through with this image of geek culture presented in the novel (tech-savvy; well-educated: lover of sci-fi, video games, etc.) then we’d end up with a very small percentage of people who really don’t correspond to the general demographic of white male Americans (religious, conservative, no college degree, not readers, and certainly not readers of sci-fi, etc.).

So how might we describe the ideology driving geek culture? Probably the best place to begin would be with something like the Electronic Freedom Foundation. The EFF focuses on issues of privacy, freedom of information and operates as a watchdog against both corporate and government power. Or you might consider someone like Cory Doctorow or Bruce Sterling (in Ready Player One, Doctorow is the president of the OASIS). These political views might be best described as libertarian, though differently libertarian from the guy whose key issues are gun ownership and legal pot. What is commonly shared is a mistrust of government and corporation. We may not share these politics (perhaps we do). I am not interested in critiquing or defending these views here. Instead, I am interested in thinking through how geek politics and culture emerge together on the unlikely path to become central to American life.

For me this crystalizes right now in the form of MinecraftMinecraft has become a very popular game, but to be good at it requires some very geeky knowledge and dedication. There is a kind of geeky workflow associated with the game: working independently creating worlds, making “skins” and so on; spending hours on discussion forums; and developing a deeper than average understanding of computers and networks. In this sense, it’s more than a game. Not surprisingly, the games we play socialize us in certain ways. Geek culture is a certain kind of socialization. 30 years ago being a geek meant being a social pariah. Today it is something different, I think. Perhaps today the rise of the geeks has led us to view the culture differently, though perhaps no less negatively.

living in a virtual world

Ready Player One gives us the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation): Cline’s version of a fully immersive, virtual reality future. Of course, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen such things in science fiction. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) coined the term “cyberspace:” “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Later, works like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash gave us the metaverse, which like the OASIS was part game and part internet.

What’s the closest thing we have to such technologies now? Probably Google Glasses

So here’s my question to you… How immersed do you think we can or should become? 10 or 15 years ago we might have said that we wouldn’t want to wander around with a smartphone and today many people would feel disconnected with theirs. I doubt any of us would be in a hurry to live in this dystopian future, but what do we make of these technologies? Do we imagine that video gaming might play a role in developing the interactive and immersive technologies that will shape our future?