This is the third of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.
Beneath Duke University's Perkins library, an unassuming, yet fiercely original approach to video games research is underway. Tied less to computer science and engineering than you might expect, the students and faculty are studying games for their effects on players.
I was introduced to a graduate researcher who has turned a game into an experiment. His work exists between the humanities, psychology, and computer science. Some games, particularly modern ones, feature complex economies that require players to collaborate as often as they compete. These researchers have adapted that property to create an economics game in which participants anonymously affect the opportunities – and setbacks – of other players. Wealth inequality is built in. The players' behavior, they hope, will inform them about 'real-world' economic decisions.
At the intersection of this interdisciplinary effort with games, I met Shai Ginsburg, an associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies who studies video games and board games the way other humanities professors might study Beowulf.
For example, he is able to divide human history into eras of games rather than of geopolitics.
"Until recently, games were not all that interactive," he says. "Video games are, obviously, interactive, but board games have evolved, too, over the same period of time." This shift is compelling because it offers us new freedoms in the way we express human experience.
"The fusion of storytelling and interactivity in games is very compelling," Ginsburg says. "We haven't seen that many games that handle issues like mental illness," until more recently, he points out. The degree of interactivity in a video game grants a player a closeness to the narrative in the areas where writing, music, and visual art alone would be restricted. This closeness gives game designers – as artists – the freedom to explore themes where those artistic restrictions also hinder communication.
However, Dr. Ginsburg is not a game historian; the time that a game feature evolved is far less relevant to him than how its parent game affects players. "We tend to focus on the texts that interest us in a literature class," he says, by way of example. He studies the games that interest him for the play opportunities they provide.
One advantage of using games as a medium to study their effects on people is that, "the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow is not yet there," Ginsburg says. In painting, writing, and plenty of other mediums, a clear distinction between "good" and "bad" is decided simultaneously by communities of critics and consumers. Not so, in the case of games.
"I look at communities as a measure of the effectivity of the game less than for itself," Ginsburg notes. "I think the question is 'how was I reacting?' and 'why was I reacting in such a way?'" he says. Ginsburg's effort seeks to reveal the mechanisms that give games their societal impact, though those impacts can be elusive. How to learn more? "Play lots of games. Play different kinds of games. Play more games."