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The digital culture of analog games

February 2, 2012

One of the things I’m most interested in talking about here is the question of how media studies can interrogate digital culture. In particular, I’d like to try to answer that question in the context of my own subfield of digital culture: game studies. Games are not by their nature essentially digital; indeed, if I’m correct that stories and games are really two kinds of the same thing–something I call “practomime“–then thinking of game studies purely in terms of digital games (including of course the categories “video games” and “computer games”) is almost certainly bound to create semantic problems at the very least. Nevertheless, the field of game studies, such as it is, has come into being as a direct result of the proliferation of digital platforms on which to mount instances of practomime–play, to put it broadly–of various kinds.

One might view this as a matter of convenience: digital games have made a new kind of impact on culture, and provoked the formation of a nascent discipline. I wonder though if putting it down to convenience obscures an opportunity for a kind of digital humanities scholarship that studies the analogue roots of digital culture. Our colleague Jennifer Terni is working on a fascinating project that seems to find the beginnings of social media long before ENIAC; similarly, I think Plato’s cave-culture game may be a direct antecedent of BioShock.

It’s in that light that a post today on Play the Past catches my notice: Jeremy Antley uses the idea of the platform to critique boardgames as a means, and as an object, of humanistic inquiry. For example:

Many board games that explore historical subjects do so, often, on foundations of informed and researched perspectives culled from a variety of primary and secondary sources.  The board game, as a historical artifact, should always be seen as a secondary source, especially when it is at rest.  Looking at the rules, designer notes, game materials, etc… provides the astute observer with several points of inquiry for historical analysis.  Using the example of Twilight Struggle, one could use cards in the event deck alone as ‘highlights’ of the Cold War to explore in primary and secondary accounts, without even touching on how the game board depicts nations with stability numbers and connective lines of influence.

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