Our games, ourselves

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 5, 2011


Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues its fall program with a look at the rise of video games.

The chat, moderated by Marc Levitt, will feature D. Fox Harrell, a professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Randall Nichols, a professor of English and media studies at Bentley University; and Mary Flanagan, a professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College and author of Critical Play: Radical Game Design.

The discussion, titled "1972: The Birth of Pong and Video Games," will be at AS220 on October 12 at 5:30 pm; it's free and open to the public. The Phoenix, a sponsor of Action Speaks!, caught up with Flanagan for a Q&A via email.

IN YOUR BOOKCRITICAL PLAY, YOU WRITE THAT PEOPLE HAVE USED GAMES TO CHALLENGE AUTHORITY FOR CENTURIES. YOU FOCUS, AT ONE POINT, ON VICTORIAN ERA GIRLS PLAYING HOUSE. WHAT DID YOU FIND THERE? Victorian girls played like kids today — they were subversive players, killing their dolls, holding doll funerals, and exploring social norms around those events. Doll manufacturers responded to this, selling doll caskets and funeral attire for other dolls. Such play shows us of the prevalence of illness and death in the era, as well as they way in which children made sense of the events. Such play reveals that we are not so different today than players of the past.

YOU ALSO WRITE OF VIDEO GAMES AS A POSSIBLE TOOL OF SOCIAL CRITIQUE. DESCRIBE THE 2008 GAMEHUSH AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT THE GENRE.Hush is a game created by students at the University of Southern California that explores a possible moment during the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s. Players take on the position of a mother and try to keep a baby quiet while men are hunting a village for those different than themselves. The game is created with minimal graphics and sound, but the experience is rich and harrowing — emotionally very deep and very moving. The game shows us that big 3D game engines or huge narratives aren't necessarily the key to a moving play experience — a simple approach might still yield a moving, haunting experience.

DOES THIS SORT OF GAME HAVE ANY HOPE OF APPEALING TO A MASS AUDIENCE? I think critical games do have an appeal. We're at a point where games can tackle difficult and important issues, much like other creative forms such as films or novels. Since 2005, game sales have outpaced Hollywood box office sales; one could say that games are the medium of our time. If that is true, many types of games will appeal to various audiences, and we'll see new genres emerge.

DO YOU FIND ANYTHING REDEEMING IN GAMES THAT CURRENTLY ENJOY MASS APPEAL? Of course! Games evoke our dreams and fantasies. They teach us that perseverance matters, and that we can constantly improve. Games can help us problem solve and become interested in things from space exploration to science to commerce. They can connect us to each other through play.

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  Topics: This Just In , Games, Video Games, AS220,  More more >
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