Game Theory Evolves With Mouse, Click, PhD

Associated Press Writer

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 PhD 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."

According to the Entertainment Software Assn., 50% 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% of U.S. parents said they planned to buy a video game.

So why shouldn't it 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comparative Media Studies program.

Some of the new questions in a very young field: How do you judge a game? As you would a novel? Should we think up a whole new vocabulary for evaluating games? What do the social dynamics of online worlds -- those massively multiplayer games -- tell us about human behavior?

In Copenhagen, IT University has established the Center of Computer Games Research, which just graduated its first PhD, Jesper Juul.

Juul appears to be the first person anywhere to 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.

"There is an interesting naughtiness in taking something that many people consider unimportant and frivolous, and then creating very detailed theory about it," Juul said. But "I would say that video games merit much more analysis than novels or movies simply because they are less understood."

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 Assn. -- and peer-reviewed online critical journal, Game Studies, where one writer, discussing the horror and splatter-fest Playstation game "Silent Hill," wrote that it "favors syntagmatic causality over descriptive explication. Its distinct chain of puzzle solving and conditional progression enable it to instigate and maintain pace and tension, and so fuel its unnerving visions of death and possession."

Generally, the field's most abstract and hard-core theorists are coming out of Europe, such as Juul and Espen Aarseth, who has been working in the subject for a decade.

In the United States, meanwhile, 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 like 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 are also a handful of small game developers who are both theorists and designers -- and who use their products to toy with the notion of games.

For example, New York-based gameLab recently produced "Arcadia," which has you play four rudimentary games -- reminiscent of old-school titles like "Pong" or "Pole Position" -- at the same time.

Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of gameLab, says the game is almost postmodern in how it appropriates "the raw material of our own history."

"What we try to do is provide not a single way of looking at games, but a whole series of ways," he said. "We would like to have an audience that thinks about games as more than boy-power fantasies."

Some in the industry, however, are not so sure that games will ever mature. They fear that games could be a dead-end like comic books -- valuable as a social phenomenon, but, outside a select few titles like Art Spiegelman's "Maus," not worth a great deal of individual study.

"I seldom play computer games because it's such a depressing experience," said Chris Crawford, a game designer who is building a program to create interactive stories. "I end up shaking my head in dismay at how stuck the designers are in a rut."

That's where academics believe that 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 Gonzalo Frasca, a game researcher 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."

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