Videogame collection supports scholarly study

After several months of fascinating discussion about emerging interest in the academic study of videogames, I am overjoyed that the University of Chicago Library has acquired its first videogame collection, and that these games will soon be available for borrowing from the Mansueto Library. Why, some might ask, should a university library add videogames to its holdings? Moreover, why is the popular digital game form important? And, finally, what might the University of Chicago community gain from this new collection?

VideogameThere are many ways to approach these questions. I’ll offer just a few responses. Digital games are one of the major entertainment and art forms of the late 20th and early 21st century. Taking into account the combined growth of console, personal computer, portable, and online games, estimates suggest that games are a roughly $60 billion a year industry and some estimates suggest that they’re poised to reach $70 billion a year by 2015. In 2011, there were approximately 183 million active gamers in the United States who played digital games an average of 13 hours a week. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average American gamer in 2010 was 37 years old, and 42% of all game players were women.

These averages are suggestive but some games inspire even more extreme forms of spending and gameplay. For example, in late 2010, the game Call of Duty: Black Ops earned $650 million in worldwide sales in just five days — a huge yield even by comparison to the top-grossing film in a comparable five-day time span, The Dark Knight, which earned about $200 million. Perhaps the more startling fact, reported by Black Ops creator Activision, was that the over 20 million early adopters of the game logged more than 600 million hours of collective gameplay in the first 45 days after release — a play time that adds up to an astonishing 68,000 years.

That videogames are extremely profitable and a popular form of entertainment that touches millions of people in the early 21st century suggests that they are and will continue to be of interest to social science fields such as psychology, economics, anthropology, and education. However, these reasons alone perhaps do not offer a compelling enough reason for assembling a historical collection of videogames at a top university library.

Art videogameYet the games themselves, I would argue, are equally important and worthy of study as the activity that they inspire. In recent years, the humanities and social sciences have started attending increasingly to the historical, technological, and artistic properties of videogames. There are many ongoing debates among scholars and game designers about which properties of digital games derive from other forms, including novels, films, theater, and sports contests. There are discussions about which components of digital games — interactivity, networked communities, hypermediated interfaces, and so on — make them unique. Cultural studies has also raised critical questions about the ways in which race, gender, class, and sexuality are represented (or often go underrepresented or misrepresented) in popular games, as well as the ways in which players negotiate these categories during play. Increasingly, the overarching question of “Why should we study videogames?” is yielding to more refined questions and significant research projects that are shaping a rich field of study.

There has already been a great deal of excitement surrounding videogames as an area of serious scholarly study at the University of Chicago. In 2010, Professor John Reppy taught an upper-level Game Construction course in the Computer Science department that approached software engineering through computer games. In 2011, along with Melissa Gilliam (Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics and Chief of the Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research), I started the Game Changer Chicago initiative to oversee projects related to serious games and health education.

In the winter quarter of 2012, I also taught a graduate-level, humanities-oriented course called Critical Videogame Studies that attracted 23 students. These participants came from a wide range of disciplines including English, cinema and media studies, anthropology, economics, history, and law. These students were interested in applying various methodologies and asking different kinds of questions about our shared topic. Over the course of the quarter, our close readings of games attended to their aesthetics, interface designs, narratives, gameplay procedures, player interactions, cultural dimensions, economic implications, and technical attributes. We discussed the historical development of videogames from Steve Russell’s early 1960s game Spacewar! to 21st century massively multiplayer online games such as Minecraft. We explored numerous videogame genres, including first-person shooters, music performance games, serious and educational games, and independent art games. We read texts by game theorists including Ian Bogost, Roger Caillois, Nick Dyer-Witheford, James Paul Gee, Johan Huizinga, Jane McGonigal, Marshall McLuhan, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman.

The intellectual energy surrounding videogames that I observed in this recent course has extended far beyond the classroom at the University of Chicago. Beginning in 2010, we had our first informal gameplay and discussion nights that included undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Building on these sessions, a dedicated group of participants started a vibrant student group called the Ludic Union for the Investigation of Gaming Interfaces (LUIGI) that encourages the study, design, and development of videogames and transmedia games at the university. Several undergraduate and graduate students in this group are working on scholarly and creative projects about videogames and are planning to teach future courses on different topics in the field.

The videogame collection at the University of Chicago Library is intended to support both teaching and research about videogames. The first version of this collection, which we hope to expand even more in the coming years, already includes a range of games released between 1977 and 2012. There are games for consoles that include the Atari VCS, NES, SNES, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Certain consoles (including the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and Xbox 360), which have been both donated and purchased, are also available to be checked out at the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) equipment cage in the recently opened Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Even as the collection is currently focused on console games, we hope to expand it to other areas, such as computer and mobile games, in future years. The games included in the present collection have been carefully selected to cover a range of genres, historical developments, platforms, and design innovations.

 

Selected Games

As part of an invitation to explore this collection together, I have asked members of the LUIGI student group (who have played an active and vital role in shaping the collection) to offer a brief introduction to some of the games that they find most significant from a historical and artistic standpoint. While many of the videogames we find most compelling had to be left off of this list, this selection of games purchased by the Library offers a taste of what our growing collection has to offer.

Adventure (Atari VCS, 1979, Atari Inc.)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

AdventureWith Will Crowther and Don Woods’ 1976 work of interactive fiction of the same title serving as its inspiration, and everything from The Legend of Zelda through Shadow of the Colossus and Red Dead Redemption standing as its spiritual progeny, Adventure for the Atari VCS represents the birth of the console adventure game. One of the few games on the VCS to represent a space that extended beyond the bounds of a single screen, Adventure is a fascinating example of the emergence of new depictive forms in the face of technology poorly optimized for the task, and its “Easter egg” — a well-hidden room sporting the message “created by Warren Robinett” — provides a small window into labor relations in programming at the time.

 

Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1985, Nintendo Creative Department)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Videogame Super Mario Bros.There may not be a more iconic videogame than Super Mario Bros. Its clean, colorful pixelated style and musical score have become shorthand for the videogame as a cultural object — and the subcultures that surround it. To play Super Mario Bros. is to experience a desperate rush to safety at the end of the level — to sprint under enemies, leap over pits, and land precariously on the other side. Though it rewards practice and patient exploration, its most thrilling moments come from being overwhelmed — when there are so many enemies, such unfamiliar terrain, and so little chance for survival that there is no time for thought and one is given over to impulse and leaps of faith. As with similarly iconic works in other media, its familiarity can easily overshadow its difficulty, its depth, and its influence.

Virtua Fighter 2 (Sega Saturn, 1995, Sega-AM2)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Videogame Virtua Fighter 2The Virtua Fighter series played an important role in the evolution of both the fighting genre and videogame graphics in the mid-1990s. The privileging of simple moves over virtuosic button combinations, together with the groundbreaking use of polygon graphics to give weight to characters’ bodies and increase the illusion of onscreen depth, made the Virtua Fighter experience as much about the interaction of two bodies in space as it was about knockouts. Playing a fighting game typically means practicing series of finger movements, developing and performing a personal style, and testing of one’s abilities against another human or a computer. The Virtua Fighter series demonstrated that the distances between characters and the pauses between moves are as palpable a part of this experience as the frenzy of attack.

Earthbound (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1995, Ape and HAL Laboratory)
Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago faculty, English

Released under the alternate title Mother 2 (1994) in Japan, this epic turn-based role-playing game (RPG) invites the player to guide a party of children through an American metropolis, a zombie-infested town, a cultist village, an overpriced resort town, a parallel dimension inspired by Twin Peaks, and many other settings. Complicating the fantasy-oriented RPG, this postmodern production offers a lengthy quest that unfolds in the game’s contemporary 1990s. Although it was not originally a commercial success, Earthbound garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews and developed a cult following. The game operates at once as an innovative RPG and as a parody of the genre. The game calls attention to its gameplay and narrative conventions through self-referential commentary and clever, media-specific violations of the fourth wall. Earthbound was designed by Shigesato Itoi — a popular cultural figure in Japan whose creative work includes essays, copywriting, lyrics, voice acting, short stories co-written with award-winning Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and a well-known news site (“Almost Daily Itoi News”).

Resident Evil (PlayStation, 1996, Capcom)
Clint Froehlich, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Videogame Resident EvilInspired by horror games Alone in the Dark and Sweet Home, Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996) was singular upon its release. Its popularity led to the categorization of “survival-horror” as a sub-genre. A corny corporate-malfeasance narrative and famously bad dialogue and voice-acting (“Here’s a lockpick. It might be handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you”) don’t detract from the game’s frequent scares and creepy atmosphere. It remains notable for its stunning pre-rendered backgrounds and its effective emulation of horror-movie tropes through static camera angles (very rare in today’s games), cinematic “cut scenes,” and an agile soundtrack that values ominous silence and disturbing sound effects more than aggressive underscoring.  

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998, Nintendo EAD)
Nicholas Cassleman, University of Chicago undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (Game Design)

Like the other games in the Zelda franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is lauded for its sense of grandeur and adventure. Inspired by childhood explorations of Japan’s countryside, Zelda’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto aimed to create an expansive, adventure-filled world that empowered its players. Puzzle-endowed dungeons, cumulative collection of unique items and powers, and rich 3D graphics for the game’s new 64-bit console helped Ocarina of Time become one of the console’s top-rated games. Many systems in the game, including target-locking and situational controls that were developed to overcome problems interacting with a 3D environment, have become conventional mainstays in today’s videogames.

Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast, 1999, Sega AM2)
Lyndsey Moulds, University of Chicago undergraduate, English

Videogame ShenmueOften described as the first true “open world” adventure game, Shenmue (1999) is notable for its unprecedented focus on creating an immersive world. In a revolutionary attempt at realism, elements of the game are illustrated with equal attention to detail: the game’s numerous characters and interiors are all painstakingly rendered, regardless of their relevance to the main story. Shenmue is notable even when compared to contemporary games for its portrayal of the mundane — perhaps best exemplified by the way the main character carefully removes his shoes each time he enters his home.

Super Smash Bros. Melee (Nintendo GameCube, 2001, HAL Laboratory)
Marley-Vincent Lindsey,
University of Chicago undergraduate, History

Videogame Super Smash Bros. Melee

Building on the original Super Smash Brothers (1999) for the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee (2001) is the best-selling videogame for the Nintendo GameCube. It provides a universe in which major characters and stories from all of Nintendo’s consoles collide. The combat system is different from other fighter games because more damage does not guarantee victory — players must instead force opposing characters offstage to win. Melee provides a challenge, both through game design and exploits (or parts of code that had unintended consequences). For example, “wave dashing” is a technique through which the player can continue moving while being viewed by the game engine as standing still, thereby allowing for attacks to continue. Such exploits were quickly adopted by professional players and implemented in tournaments. The game was picked up by Major League Gaming in 2005, and was also featured in prominent competitive game tournaments from 2003 to 2007. It is one of the rare instances in which competition thrived even after the release of a game’s sequel (Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Nintendo Wii in 2008).

PsychoNauts (Xbox, 2005, Double Fine Productions)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

PsychonautsAfter his critically beloved Grim Fandango flopped and effectively ended LucasArt’s PC adventure game division, renowned game developer Tim Schafer formed Double Fine Productions and turned to console game development.  PsychoNauts transfers Schafer’s talents for deft characterization and madcap dialogue into a somewhat off-kilter hybrid of the adventure and 3D-platformer genres.  Although the core gameplay can be uneven at times (with certain later levels becoming infamous for their wildly out-of-balance difficulty), PsychoNauts nevertheless utterly charms with its whimsical world filled with pyrokinetic mountain lions, shadowy conspiracies involving milkmen and girl scouts, and tiny cities players find themselves wrecking, Japanese monster-movie style.

Shadow of the Colossus (PlayStation 2, 2005, Team ICO)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus, like many adventure games before it, is built on familiar tropes: as the hero, take your sword, and your horse, and go kill giants in order to revive a lifeless damsel. Remarkably, by stripping the game of all but these elements and by pushing the scale of settings and monsters to unimaginable heights, the makers of Shadow of the Colossus created a game that was one part meditation on solitude, the sublime, death, and the moral ambiguity of violence, and one part ecstatic, breathtaking hero’s quest. In Shadow of the Colossus, giants’ bodies are living geographies — and the player scales their heights only to bring them crumbling to the ground.

BioShock (Xbox 360, 2007, 2K Games)
Nicholas Cassleman, University of Chicago undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (Game Design)

BioshockBioShock is considered by many to be one of videogame form’s finest examples of art. The game takes place in Rapture, an underwater city inspired by Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. In this world, a mysterious protagonist fights his way through the dystopian remains of the 1960s era city. In this environment, he encounters Rapture’s twisted inhabitants who have been driven mad and deformed by an addiction to recreational genetic modification. Drawing from the First Person Shooter and survival horror genres, BioShock delivers polished gameplay mechanics while telling a mature, conceptually rich story. It creates a world brimming with spatial narrative and detail matched by few other games.

Metroid Prime Trilogy (Wii, 2009, Retro Studios Nintendo)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Dubbed the “Citizen Kane of videogames” by critic Michael Thompsen, Metroid Prime introduced 3D gameplay to the Metroid series, inviting players to inhabit the first-person perspective of its protagonist, interstellar bounty hunter Samus Aran. (The game remains, along with Perfect Dark, one of the few first-person games featuring a female protagonist.)  Originally released on Nintendo’s GameCube console in 2002, Prime was lauded for successfully translating the series’ trademark haunting, solitary exploration of alien landscapes into three-dimensional space, and for its presentation of backstory through in-game logs and journal entries accessible to curious and persistent players, rather than through excessive, flow-breaking cinematic cut scenes (a technique built upon later in Bioshock). Metroid Prime Trilogy collects Prime together with its sequels, adding one of the Wii’s strongest motion control-schemes to the mix.

Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3, 2010, Quantic Dream)
Kalisha Cornett, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Heavy RainHeavy Rain embodies the potential of the medium of videogames both figuratively and literally. This “interactive drama” realizes gaming’s mimetic qualities by giving players an unprecedented relationship to the motivations and physicalities of a rotating cast of character avatars. Utilizing a context-sensitive user interface that has proven to be vastly influential across a variety of media, Heavy Rain is an ambitious, risky game that features stunning set pieces of emotional intensity and noir-infused action. Just as the art of origami transforms a flat object into a beautifully complex shape, this game becomes far more than it appears to be.

 

Videogame Showcase
June 1, 3-9 p.m.
At the Logan Center

We also invite you to attend an upcoming showcase of select titles representing the breadth of the University’s holdings on June 1 from 3-9 p.m. at the Logan Center. This showcase has been designed to highlight both what videogames have drawn from other media and what makes them uniquely worthy of study and preservation.  The six-hour event will be broken into half-hour sessions on a number of themes. Come to play or watch, for a single session or the full six hours, and learn about games and their study at the University of Chicago.  For a complete schedule, visit the LUIGI blog.

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