Computer Games: Heart of the Humanities?

March 31, 2011
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In January, Steven Conway (Swinburne University of Technology), Ken McAllister (University of Arizona), and I convened a round table on computer games at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities. Though admittedly part junket (who in their right mind would pass on a week in Hawaii in the dead of winter), the conference also seemed an ideal theater to collectively and internationally think on a question of growing importance: Where does the study of computer games fit in the humanities? That is, in what ways does the medium and its exploration connect with the traditional foci of humanistic study: life, death, friendship, love, work, play, language, learning, history, and so on?We were drawn to the question for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that computer games have rapidly and widely colonized academe. A cultural and economic force since the 1970s, computer games have now become an academic one as well, prompting a proliferation of publications and courses across the disciplinary spectrum. The sciences and arts in particular have been ready institutional adopters, creating their own game development tracks and even pooling resources to form interdisciplinary degree programs and certificates. The humanities, by contrast, have generally seemed more tentative, even reluctant in their approach to the study, teaching, and building of the medium. There is ferment in the field, certainly, with increasing numbers of articles, books, and dissertations on games, but there is also a distinctive infrastructural reticence, as if humanists were intrigued by the medium’s meanings and possibilities but wary of its potential faddishness and unsustainability. A case in point: there are not a lot of humanities-driven game programs around. Games are largely ancillary in the humanities, a value-added element to extant programs and initiatives (e.g., digital humanities, media studies, etc.) rather than a primal one.

Part of humanities’ ludo-anemia, of course, can be attributed to resources: there are few available these days thanks to the sad state of states’ budgets. Most public institutions are in a period of sustained retrenchment, which is compounding the humanities’ decades-long plight of diminishing allocations and importance in the university hierarchy. Many humanities programs these days are fighting just to stay afloat, and as a result new initiatives are shelved or shot down in intensifying turf wars sparked by the mandate to reorganize in order to preserve departmental missions and core offerings.

That said, part of the humanities’ tentativeness is also probably epistemological. It has been a long time since the humanities were direct-to-market providers, if indeed they ever were. Humanities education is not typically job-specific training, but rather the enhancement of critical and perspectival faculties. The opening in computer games, at this point, is precisely in worker preparation; the industry is hungry for talent to press into service. As a result, there is something of a disconnect between what the humanities do and what games (or at least their commercial developers) require.

Likewise, computer games are an expressly computational medium. From the binary code that underpins them to the screen HUDs that display the quantification and recording of play, computer games are ineluctably about numbers and their calculation, extrapolation, and delimitation. For all their diversity and remarkable ability to explicate the human condition, the humanities are traditionally not so inclined toward calculation (a disinclination further intensified, in many cases, by a strategic and ideological push back against the increasing quantification and corporatization of university processes and assessment).

All this is to say that what came out of the round table was interesting and fun, if perhaps wildly impractical. What I liked most was the idea of computer games as a computationalizer, as a sly way to articulate numerology and humanism. It is a fraught and problematical articulation, to be sure, but a delightfully cheeky one in terms of expanding (rather than always defending) the humanities’ purview at a time when that ken is being so sorely pressed. The timing is also right: so much of human action, communication, expression, and understanding  today is shaped by the binaries and hexadecimals of computer hardware, software, and networks. Who better to understand the workings and implications of this phenomenon than humanists, the very folks who have been probing our species’ behavior for millennia?

So, Antenna community, what do you all make of this? Where does the study of computer games fit in the humanities? Or better yet, where could it fit?


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3 Responses to “ Computer Games: Heart of the Humanities? ”

  1. Sean Duncan on April 3, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    Just a quick note that Mia Consalvo gave a talk with similar themes at GDC this year, entitled “Humanities Unlocked: The Value of Liberal Arts For Your Game Design Program.” Her slides are available at, or on slideshare here —

  2. Evamarie on April 8, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    I think one fear that comes out of Humanities studying Video Games is fear of not being taken seriously. As a Classics Major (Greek and Roman studies) I already have to face some criticism from the world at large about “Well what good is that?”. If I started studying video games, some people might be a bit jealous because I get to “play” all the time, but a lot of people would mock me even louder. This becomes especially difficult if a department is struggling to be taken seriously among all the science classes.

  3. DLG on April 16, 2011 at 12:22 AM

    I think you can make the case that the study of computer games fit squarely in one of the longest standing places within the humanities and also the one that the study has been most uncomfortable with: taking seriously the playful qualities of the tools available to us as humans. Just to give one quick example, the sophists were actively engaging in the playful manipulation of the tenuous relationship between language and meaning long before people had any “post-” to apply the project. Moreover, they were doing this in direct opposition to the people who were engaged in taking the words incredibly seriously (and who saw those words as the path to overarching Truth. It seems that games are rather well situated to take up that project of exploring the playfulness of the tools available to humans without the need to argue that those tools should be understood as play. Of course, this does not mean that games studies also bypasses the oppositional forces who demand serious study of serious subjects, but at the very least it seems that games can appeal to a long history of exploring the fragile, playful nature of humanity’s tools of communication as the charge to look directly at how tools of play are made manifest in contemporary settings.