Play on: Changing gamer culture at the 'U'

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Adam DePollo, Online Arts Editor
Published October 22, 2014

If you work your way through the video studios and audio labs on the main floor of the Duderstadt Center and walk down the narrow staircase leading into to the basement — which doubles as a tornado shelter — you will find, nestled in a quiet corner past computer stations and shelves of engineering journals, separated off from the rest of the center by a heavy door and set of large windows, the University's Computer & Video Game Archive.

And “archive” is certainly the right word to describe the place.

The back wall is dominated by shelves filled with a sampling from the entirety of gaming history, ranging from a 1975 Sears Sports Center, to board games, to cartridges for the NES and Nintendo 64 and finally to the latest releases on the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U. Stations where patrons can play any of the Archive’s more than 5,000 titles take up the majority of the room’s square footage. There’s a walled-off room for audio-heavy games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. The space behind the front desk is littered with donations waiting to be catalogued and installed onto the collection’s computers. What little room is left on the walls is filled with posters, retro advertisements and graphic novels, comics and guidebooks to accompany the video games in the collection.

It’s impossible to enter the Archive without being profoundly struck by the sheer weight of the materials it contains — something akin to the feeling one gets while wandering alone in the more remote parts of the library stacks , coming face-to-face with the thousands upon thousands of books lining the shelves and imagining the millions of hours of research, the tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives devoted to amassing that collection of knowledge. But the feeling is all the more strongly felt when you realize that, as Archivist and collection development director Dave Carter explained, the Archive is a work in progress. Its selection isn’t anywhere near comprehensive.

“(A collection of every game in existence) would be the Platonic ideal,” Carter said, “but we have neither the funds nor the space to do that. So, as with all libraries, we have to make choices about what we’re getting. I’m trying to assemble a collection that’s representative, in as many ways as I can.”

The Game Den to End All Game Dens

Before waxing too poetic, however, it’s important to remember that video games are, at heart, entertainment — a fact just as readily visible in the CVGA as the history the collection seeks to preserve.

When I visited the Archive last Friday, the room was filled with patrons, some arguing over which game mode they would play in “Super Smash Bros.,” one intensely focused on a round of “League of Legends,” a small group gathered on a couch and chatting about the newly-released RPG “Shadow of Mordor.”

Charles Dryer, an LSA sophomore who works on the Archive’s staff, gave me a tour of the collection and described the usual atmosphere in the space.

“Friday is our busiest day — we actually staff two people to cover the Archive instead of the usual one — because Friday is the only day we allow our most popular game, 'Super Smash Bros.,' to be played,” he said. “During the week we want it to be a calmer atmosphere, a little more studious. But Friday is a good day for people to let loose a little bit. They’ll get a bit rowdy, they really get into it, that kind of thing.”

With literally thousands of games to choose from and comfortable spaces to play them in, it’s easy to see why, in its day-to-day operations, the CVGA serves as more of a recreational space than other libraries on campus. And, as Carter explained, the Archive was founded with recreational use in mind.

“We knew that was going to be the case when we started out,” he said. “By opening it up to anybody who just wants to come in and play games, anyone who wants to will come in and play games.”

But by offering video games and a space to play them for both University affiliates and the Ann Arbor community — anyone with a photo I.D. can use the Archive’s collection — the CVGA is also filling a gap in the video game industry created by the loss of brick-and-mortar video rental stores like Blockbuster in recent years.

In 2014, if you’re not sure about whether you want to buy a game, the options for testing out the product beforehand are severely limited. You can play the ten minute demo at your local Gamestop, you can download the 30 minute demo directly to your console, or you can pay $16 a month for a rental service like Gamefly, which offers none of the streaming convenience of Netflix and only allows you to play one game at a time before incurring extra costs. There’s a bit more flexibility on PCs, where you can easily download an illegal copy of just about any game you could think of, but legal demo options are perhaps even more limited than they are for consoles.

And, of course, the cost of video game software and hardware can be prohibitive. A computer capable of smoothly running popular games like “League of Legends” will cost you upwards of $300 at the least, while consoles like the PS4 run between $400 and $500, with new games costing about $60 and online play requiring the purchase of yearly $50-$60 subscriptions. For cash-strapped gamers, those costs often translate into hard choices about which games to buy and understandable disappointment when a game doesn’t live up to expectations.

By providing access to the latest games and the hardware to play them on, libraries like the CVGA are expanding access to and promoting engagement with games that, because of factors like cost, might not otherwise be available to interested gamers.

Beyond lightening cost burdens, however, the Archive’s expansive collection also helps to make video games more accessible to individuals and communities who don’t necessarily fit the definition of ‘traditional’ gamers.

Part of that work is achieved through the choice of games to include in the collection, as Carter explained.

“(Building the collection) obviously includes getting a lot of popular games in there, but it also involves non-popular games. Identifying games that are going to be interesting, or games that are developed by or intended for certain non-traditional audiences, games for kids, sorts of things that may not instantly be appreciated by our regular clientele.”

But another, perhaps more significant part of the process might be achieved by simply having a physical space in which people can meet and interact with video games on their own terms. Archive Manager Valerie Waldron described one example of how the CVGA has been used to address issues of sexism and gender-based exclusion in gaming communities.

“We had a grad student in here a couple years back, and she created a student organization — it only lasted for about a semester because it was a project — but it just involved having women in here and doing social events and trying to make them feel comfortable,” Waldron said. “Just seeing what it would look like to have just women in here and to see what kind of social interactions would take place.”

A Space for Scholarship

While video game history begins with the development of the first consoles in the early 1970s and academic collections like the Video Game Archive at Ritsumeikan University have been in operation since the late 1990s in Japan, it’s only in the past ten or fifteen years that video games have begun to be considered a serious subject for academic inquiry in the United States.

The development of programs dedicated to the study of video games at American universities is an even more recent phenomenon — the University’s CVGA and comparable collections like the University of Texas’s Videogame Archive, have only been in existence for about six years. And, while some universities offer courses in the more technical aspects of video game design, development of archives like the CVGA has rarely been accompanied by the creation of anything approaching a ‘Video Game Studies’ department that examines games from an aesthetic or cultural standpoint.

But that isn’t to say that nobody is giving video games serious attention at the University.

A number of professors from a wide variety of disciplines — including Comparative Literature, Statistics, Engineering and History — currently teach classes that offer critical perspectives on video games and video game culture. And, since its inception, the CVGA has worked to make it easier to incorporate video games into curricula.

“I think (having the Archive) greases the wheels, as it were, for expanding what can be done,” Carter said. “Having a collection like ours available here at the University I think allows faculty who want to play them in the classroom or in research to do that more easily, more readily. They don’t have to build their own collections to handle stuff and the library can be responsible for the care and feeding of those collections.”

Having a wide collection of older games and especially older hardware also opens up avenues for research that might not otherwise be available to faculty or graduate students interested in studying games and game history. Matt Thompson, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who teaches a course on video game music, particularly appreciates the selection of original TVs and audio equipment available alongside the CVGA’s game collection.

“They have TVs from the era of my childhood, so you can play ‘Super Mario’ and hear it on that TV. I mean, that’s important,” he said. “To hear it in my fancy home surround sound system is great, but that’s not how ‘Super Mario’ sounded. And one of the things about game audio is, you know, if you’re developing a game for iPhone, you will probably listen to it on very expensive equipment, but at the end of the day you’re going to listen to it on an iPhone. So you might need to mix it in a certain way, and I love the fact that the archive has these different audio technologies possible.”

The CVGA’s collection can also, as Waldron explained, make certain types of research much easier and more cost efficient.

“The Transportation Institute on North Campus, they wanted a way to simulate driving so that they could do a texting-while-driving experiment — that’s not something that you want to do on the road, and they had this really expensive driving simulator over there that is always reserved for grad student projects, more important projects. So they wanted to find something relatively cheap, and it’s free to come in here and use our driving games so they did that and it worked out really well.”

A collection like the CVGA, just like any library, provides a space for academics and researchers to approach familiar materials with new perspectives. That accessibility can simply lead to an easier way to do research, as in the case of the Transportation Institute’s work, or provide avenues toward new and exciting studies like Thompson’s, which often develop out of such unexpected sources. But, most importantly, they provide the raw materials through which we can enhance our understanding of and productively complicate our discussions about the world around us.

Changing How We Think About Video Games

As the efforts of collections like the CVGA help to develop video games into a serious topic for academic study, they’re contributing to a change in discourses outside of academia as well.

Two years ago, the Smithsonian developed one of the first museum exhibits to examine video games as an art form — a new way to consider the medium that, in Carter’s view, follows patterns in the way our views of any popular art change.

“We see this process with just about every medium that was once considered a ‘trash’ medium,” he said. “Movies, television; even the novel, when it was first being developed, was considered a low form of entertainment. In Shakespeare’s times, plays were considered something for the lower classes and high-minded people didn’t pay much attention to them. So today’s trash culture is tomorrow’s culture that’s going to be studied.”

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that video games are developing into one of the most dominant fields of artistic expression, both in terms of cultural importance and sheer dollar amounts, as Thompson explained.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that games generate as much income as TV and movies combined each year, and so when you start to think about it, then it’s like ‘Well, if there’s so much money possible, why the crap aren’t we looking at it?’”

As video games and the game industry rise in cultural and economic importance, they have some serious problems that they need to grapple with — issues with representations of women and minorities being just two major examples. But there’s no way to contribute to those discussions without playing the games themselves and thinking about them critically, and that may be where a collection like the CVGA can have the most impact.

“I’d say that about 75 percent of the use of the Archive right now is recreational,” Carter said. “But what that does is that people know that we’re there, just so that, especially for the students, when they have a class project or something like that and are looking for something interesting to do, they’ll remember ‘Oh, the Video Game Archive! Maybe there’s some way I can work that into this project I have.’"

And maybe one of those projects, created by students working and playing with the entirety of video game history at their fingertips, will give us a way to change those discussions for the better.