Studying the games people play

September 08, 2006, volume 37, no. 1

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What do Grand Theft Auto or Halo have in common with, say, War and Peace, or Citizen Kane? On the surface, not much at all. The first are popular video games, and the other two are recognized works of art. But if Jim Bizzocchi, assistant professor of interactive arts at SFU Surrey is right, these and other video games might be shelved next to the great novels and films as icons of their time. Just as the novel was the dominant art form of the 19th century, and cinema defined the 20th, Bizzocchi thinks games could be the most important cultural expression of the 21st century.

"It's early days yet," Bizzocchi acknowledges. "Other art forms might take the dominant role, but games are definitely a contender". There are three criteria for creative dominance, he says: "There's commerce, popular culture, and expressive art form".

There's no argument that video games generate revenue. They are currently nearly as profitable as film. Similarly, their popularity, particularly with the younger demographic, is undeniable. But are they an art form worthy of scholarly research?

"Why not?", Bizzocchi asks. "People design games, just as they design films. It's a collaborative, artistic medium with a whole set of creative decisions that have to be made in order to provide an experience that is as gratifying and immersive as possible."

Games have a long history, he points out, and video games in particular are an important cultural phenomenon. There is an argument that video game play has changed the way an entire generation sees and interacts with the world, Bizzocchi explains. "Digital natives", born after 1975, have always had computers, video play, and instant messaging as a part of their lives. The rest of us, born pre-1975, are digital immigrants. We may know how to use the technology, and speak the jargon fluently, but it will always be as foreign to us as a second language.

Games study is a part of the business of creating and studying knowledge. We use games to talk about cultural and social institutions. Those are university questions."

As a new medium requiring new skills and knowledge, games are an increasingly important form of collaborative process of technical expertise and artistic expression, he adds. Designing a typical game calls on the talents of designers, writers, artists, musicians, programmers. "It's much like film studies, or photography," Bizzocchi says. "It's a legitimate area for scholarly teaching and research, in the same way other media are".

When asked what his personal favourite video game is, Bizzocchi cites Antigrav, an interactive game designed for Play Station 2's iToy. Essentially a camera, the iToy, once fully calibrated, allows players to engage fully, using their bodies to direct the game's action, without having to learn any complicated interface. "It's a very highly performative game," he says. "The human is at the forefront of the action. I'm actually performing, and if I'm playing on a large screen, other people can watch. It's theatre, and that's part of the fun of it".

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