Finding the Humanities in Games

In a Humanities Center Colloquium, Mike Call taught that video and board games provide a wealth of unexplored material for humanities’ study.

Mike Call 1PROVO, Utah (March 26, 2015)—Today the videogame industry in the United States is three times the size of the music industry, and some games have budgets and earnings that exceed Hollywood’s biggest hits. And yet this industry and its relationship with culture has barely been tapped by scholarly research.

“Games, taken in a very large context – from the traditional card or board games to videogames – should be included in the humanities conversation alongside literature, film, theater and the visual arts,” said Michael Call, associate professor of comparative studies and interdisciplinary humanities, in a Humanities Center Colloquium. Call’s presentation, “How Does a Game Mean?” explored the value of adding the research of games to the humanities and how it would be undertaken.

According to Call, the question isn’t whether or not games can be considered as art; neither side of that particular debate can agree on a definition of art, and Call is skeptical that there would be anything to gain from an agreement. Instead, the question is whether or not anything can be learned from studying games. Call answered firmly in the positive.

“Games can have meaning,” he said. “They can represent and engage with important issues, and they can contribute to the ongoing cultural conversation.” For years, scholars have studied how the games that a society plays reveal its cultural values. Thomas Kavanagh, for example, cited France’s shift from gambling games in which players played against one another to playing against the house as reflective of a new understanding in chance.

Not all games are obvious or even convincing in the way that they represent culture. As such, it is more useful to examine the basic assumptions that support a game’s concept. For example, French game designer Bruno Faidutti once relayed an experience playing Settlers of Catan when another player asked, “Where are the natives of Catan?”

Faidutti explained on his blog, “Settlers of Catan is colonization as we dream it, or as we would have liked it to be, colonization of a new world which looks just like the old one and is void of alien presence.”

Mike Call 2As Call explained, meaning can be extracted from a game as easily as from literature. Just as literary critics examine the subject and form of a poem to decipher meaning, so too do game critics examine the theme and mechanics in order to interpret a game.

“Games make arguments through the systems they create, the models they build and the ways we are invited to interact with those models,” Call said. The war game Risk places emphasis on tactical thinking and battle strategy, with players being able to move troops to various countries under their control to attack countries held by other players. Ultimately, however, the outcome of every battle is determined by the roll of the dice, demonstrating how the best laid plans are still subject to chance.

Games are also studied for the extent to which they incorporate competition. Scholars have commented on how the winner of the Game of Life by Milton Bradley was once whoever reached 100 points first by landing on squares that celebrated virtues like honor and bravery. Later versions of the game determine the winner to be whoever finishes with the most money, suggesting a shift in American values.

This analysis carries over into videogames, many of which have explored complex concepts of ethics and philosophy by placing players in the shoes of protagonists completely alien to them. Whether they be soldiers, gang members, robots or actual aliens, players are put through new ways of thinking.

Call concluded his remarks by reemphasizing that games cannot and should not be ignored in the humanities conversation, saying, “It will be better if we bring the topic a critical mindfulness that will allow us to choose deliberately and with discernment what and how we play.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)