Monday, February 23, 2009

ad honores per ludum

What follows in my account of the conference Greek and Roman games in the computer age, which took place in Trondheim, Norway, 20-21 February.
As said this is my account, and my perception of the event, and I do feel a need to state this, as I’m trying to recount lectures that might have been experienced differently by others, and describe theories and ideas put forth clearly and succinctly by others, so any incomprehensibility is the fault of this blogger, not the person who actually presented this idea.

It is an utterly brilliant idea to invite someone to blog a conference which in some way deals with reception (here of antiquity), as you then get the reception of the conference blogged, and thus present an interesting sort of meta-reception on the reception. So, with all these caveats in place, let’s proceed to the actual happening, or rather my notes from this conference, fleshed out with some verbs and links.

I will, for now, spare you the details of how I actually got to Trondheim, but let me just say that I arrived that same morning, and to the university three minutes prior to the conference’s start, instead of arriving to Trondheim the night before, as planned, but the weather gods do not take heed to such plans. I was greeted by the kind organizers, who promised to pay for the cab, and was then seated in time for the kick-off.

The dean, who was no player of computer games held a short introduction, and then our host, SW took the podium, declaring himself happy to seeing us all here “including journalists and bloggers”, and informed us about the financing of this conference, and as a classical philologist acknowledged that we are, with this conference and its subject matter, walking on a field shared by others, something that calls for interdisciplinary work, and that we will see people of a different type than we are used to walking fields that we consider our own, and hinted at a wonderful future for us all.

Before the first presentation, the chairperson of this first session pointed out that this perhaps was the first conference of its kind, at least as organized by classists, and then unleashed the fabulous Dr D on us all. (I’ve previously met MD at the Virgil-conference in Tromsö, and it was a great joy to see him again, as he is really and truly fabulous.)

His paper was a sort of introduction for those of us not well versed in media- and gaming-studies, so called ludology, and briefly discussed such approaches to virtual gaming. He had also done an analysis of British media in the last few months, citing reports that games will eventually eclipse other media, that the gaming industry claims that all other media industries such as television, movies, etc, are stagnant or contracting, with the gaming industry being the only and fastest expanding.
He also discussed the shifts in attitude that are underway when it comes to computer games, from being youth-oriented and “a lonely activity in your bedroom” (a line that brought a round of snickers from the auditorium) to something intergenerational, with parents and children playing together. He also pointed out such things as that “gaming becomes storytelling, and is no longer pre-set trips through linear mazes, a medium that rivals feature films”.
Moving on to a discussion of this new study of gaming, there was some mention of University of Abertay, Dundee, Scotland, which having received substantial grants is a “offers world-leading courses in computer arts and computer games”, and the theories of Huizinga, conceived long before the advent of computer games (he died in 1945) and published in Homo Ludens were outlined. (There are three characteristics that play must have, namely: 1. Play is free, freedom, 2. Is not ordinary or real life, and 3. Play is distinct from ordinary life regarding location and duration, all of which more or less can be applied to computer games.)

We also looked at Social science approaches to games, what effects they have on people, and how do people create and negotiate a game. In such a discussion the constant question of computer games being good or evil reared its head, and such aspects as having to fulfil something to get to the next level were put forward as something good (no one pointed out that one can cheat) and likewise that involvement in multiplayer games apparently makes people reflect more in identity. Of course, educational values were mentioned, but I would have liked to see the theories of Everything bad is good for you at least touched upon.

Moving on to the Humanities approach to gaming, one there looks at the meaning and context of games, what meaning is made through the use of games, the studying games as artefacts, and games as medium. This is done using the critical analysis, rhetoric and vocabulary already established in the humanities, something that is questioned by ludologists, who say we have to introduce a new vocabulary.

Finally, there is the industry and engineering approach, involving the understanding the designs and development of games, that is how to make better games, and also games as drivers of technological innovation (such as graphics or whatever), and the self-historic aspect of the industry, with branch-magazines looking back, discussing and at times idolizing its past.

The paper rounded of with mentions of intermediality (apparently le dernier cri in media studies) and the discussion following this framework and introduction yielded an awesome Buddenbrooks-reference regarding accessibility, citing the situation where the wife and music teacher share something through Wagnerian and the husband can’t access that. I do enjoy a good Mann shout-out.

The next paper was by someone who was actually an expert in game studies in the field of media studies, himself pointing out the horror that no one can actually define game or media precisely, with a paper on the game God of war. We were treated to several clips, and as it was pointed out that GoW (such a professional abbreviation) is one of the most violent in history, the clips did make sense. It was said that the violence was always in contexts.
The games relations to Greek mythology were outside the scope of the paper, but seemed quite freed from any such constraints. This is also an aspect of the games with themes from mythology and history that is subject to discussion, and not so much their fidelity to primary and actual sources, but rather their reworking and reception of them, and the overall “messing” with sources.

A rather telling and hilarious moment was the asking for a show of hands of how many in the learned audience had actually played it, and the lecturers outdrawn OOOOkaaaayyyy following it, which led to an explanation of the basic story of the game. (Which you can find here) There is that messing with sources, some made up symbolic imagery, and plenty of blood. (I’m not really ideal for writing about games.)

The paper did focus some on myths, not the myths as such, but rather how myths try to reflect and explain human experience, especially the inexplicable such as death, and the experience of dying in games, with the perky following statement and question; “you are dead. Continue?” gives us means, as do myths to cope with this inescapable end, and how, if continuing, the context of the situation doesn’t change, neither avatar, but the players experience has increased. Also, failure and death are closely related in games, however things can be changed that have lead to death, you can do this in games, you are even asked to!

My notes say that there then was a “Brilliant reflection of game mythology, info flows”, but tell no more, and my memory is spotty, so let's conclude the first session, that was followed by the coffee brake, which naturally was on time, I do love Scandinavian conferences, everyone is so conscientious of being punctual.

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