Designing the Ultimate Tool[Kit] for Studying Videogames

Pac-ManScholarly disciplines usually have a consensually recognizable array of tools they use to study the primary materials of that discipline. Most often in the humanities it’s simply books and other documents, along with something to write with, although of course the digital humanities are bringing exciting new computational tools to bear on more traditional material.

In this session I want to sketch out a package of existing tools—and better yet, come up with an original, ultimate tool—that videogame studies scholars can use as they research individual games, specific platforms, entire genres, and various playing contexts. The field of film studies provides an instructive example of the kind of tool(kit) I’m describing. There’s the Cinemetrics database, Stephen Mamber’s use of thumbnail databases and timelines, the Film Study app, and a host of other ways to analyze, study, and make sense of cinema using digital tools.

In a similar fashion, let’s think of tools for studying videogames that go beyond screenshots and video capture. Imagine we’ve been awarded a grant of $50,000. What would we build? What would the ultimate digital tool for studying videogames look like? What would it do? What new modes of knowing might it enable? What new modes of knowing do we want to enable?

UPDATE: The collaborative notes for this session are online.

Pac-Man photograph courtesy of Flickr user joyrex / Creative Commons Licensed

8 thoughts on “Designing the Ultimate Tool[Kit] for Studying Videogames

  1. $50,000 would fund a pretty kickass LAN party. All kidding aside this sounds great and I think would provide a good model for building other “kits” for media studies. Although I think in the end all-in-one answers are not probably the best idea it is definitely a great exercise for getting us to think about what we would want in more hetergenous solutions.

  2. This is an inspiring proposal–I’d love to see more of these dream-big sessions. So: a quick list of my dream features for the ultimate digital videogame-teaching tool:

    1. an online lab space for videogame-style textual interventions (e.g. what happens to this level if you switch the music file? what happens if this cutscene’s dialogue is translated into Dutch and back into English?)
    **This idea would give me the most payback from such a tool–I feel that the games I teach suffer fiercely from seeming like non-estrangable texts.**

    2. an area for student-generated written FAQs and voice-over walkthroughs, that goes beyond tools for recording and annotating to allow changes like slowing and inserting your own editorial content, plus machinima creation and hosting; (allowing rating/voting on these attempts could prepare students who want to write for actual videogame sites)

    3. a wiki for amassing knowledge on the culture of video gaming–real use (what did a “typical” gaming den look like in 1987? what foods have been ascribed to a “gamer diet” over time?) and gamer culture around specific odd or forgotten* objects; (an Omeka or similar collection detailing individual students’ changing relationship to videogame titles and platforms over time seems more accessible than trying to get students to perform their histories as analog-text readers)

    4. surveys on basic videogame cultural history (e.g. what is your first videogame memory?) as the basis for both class discussion of peer videogame experience and to provide a wider dataset on gaming culture that students could learn to manipulate with a tool such as Gephi;

    5. emulation storage alongside copyright and fair use lessons, possibly with some side-by-side play capabilities pointing out differences in timing, color, sound, graphics (videogame collation!);

    6. assignments that focused on preservation of the hardware and cartridges (this could even have a writing space asking students to write to game companies and argue for better support of preservation);

    7. a hack lab running the gamut of sophistication from inputting random codes into the Game Genie to Bunnie Huang’s xBox hacking to the stack-overflow Wii exploits that let players reclaim Brawl as a competitive game, teaching coding and circuitry and mechanical play/experimentation/maker culture.

    8. a curated set of Flash metagames prompting critical thinking about how certain standard game features work (e.g. Achievement Unlocked)

    *Weird fact: The Nintendo Power Glove is off the radar for undergrads today (anecdata: I ask my digital literature students if they’d need a Power Glove to do a close reading of SMB3 and they are confused).

  3. Pingback: The Ultimate Videogame-Teaching Tool? « Literature Geek

  4. This looks like a fabulous session, Mark, and I love the ideas being floated here. Amanda’s idea of a cultural history of people’s first exposure to videogames has me thinking about an assignment I could throw at my students this fall.

    What I think could be interesting for games would be something akin to Firebug’s or Chrome’s “Inspect element” feature. When playing a game, could we pause it, and then select a feature of the game and get access to the different pieces of code that are affecting the graphics, physics, and more at the moment? Doing so strikes me as a much more difficult prospect, given the layers of interacting code. But you asked for dreams, and Critical Code Studies would be easier for this.

  5. The more we talk about this the more I think there could be some simultaneous value in aggregating the tools people are already using to interpret and analyze games and just start a games studies tool kit site or something listing out tools that have been used for various platforms. Looking forward to this!

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