Playing with the Future

By Julian Kücklich, 10 May 2002

Only a few years ago, academics and computer games seemed an unlikely combination. Except for the odd psychologist tracing the roots of street violence to children’s bedrooms, Tetris, Doom, Myst and the like were regarded as symptoms of a decaying culture, rather than cultural objects worthy of study. Now, games are no longer the devil’s plaything, but rather a hip new field of research for students of the humanities as well as economists, educationalists and, of course, computer scientists.

Playing with the Future, a conference held at Manchester’s Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition, brought together academics from all these disciplines with industry and government representatives. Although the approaches to computer games differed widely in terminology, methods, and findings, one thing was clear: computer games are not just for kids anymore.

Considering recent titles like Silent Hill and Max Payne, this might seem like a rather trivial statement, but games for a mature audience are just one indication of the new cultural role of computer games. The convergence of formerly distinct media makes the study of computer game aesthetics relevant to music video producers, web designers, film-makers, artists and even writers. Media studies now tend to regard video games as a medium in its own right, crucial to the development, dissemination and popularisation of all computer-based media.

Taking games seriously also means developing a common language for their discussion. This concern was expressed by many of the conference’s speakers, including government agencies such as ELSPA and the developer’s association IGDA. One of the key terms of this new idiom might be the word ‘playability’, although it still has to prove its usefulness. Nevertheless, all the theories of gameplay presented still couldn’t explain why, in practice, academics flock to the low-brow classic’‚ Gran Turismo’.

Julian Kücklich <julian AT kuecklich> is a literature student currently working on an MA thesis on computer games.

Playing with the Future // Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition // Manchester // 5-7 April, 2002 //[]