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By Karen Herland
Video-gamers are usually represented as an anti-social group absorbed in a virtual world requiring no human contact.
Sociologist Bart Simon has been researching the social pull of gaming and the communities created around the phenomenon for some time now. He’ll be talking about that attraction, and its sociological impact on young people, during the President’s Conference afternoon session.
Ironically, the supposedly isolating world of gaming is the subject of a new broader cross-faculty research initiative in Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG).
Since January, Simon has been director of TAG, working with Lynn Hughes, Associate Dean, Research and International Relations for the Faculty of Fine Arts, whose research into the design and development of interactive and collaborative forms of gaming have been a feature of her work at Hexagram (see Journal, Jan. 17, 2008).
Over the last two months TAG has held an open research brainstorming meeting and open houses in their location on the 11th floor of the EV Building. Their laboratory includes state of the art equipment to play games and understand what makes them (and their players) tick.
Simon has been involved in the Montreal GameCODE project, a Concordia-based research initiative that began in 2004. Working with Bernard Perron of Ludiciné (Department of Art History and Cinema at Université de Montréal) and a team of students, Simon’s project explored the cultural impact of digital games.
At the same time, Simon was speaking with professors in the English Department and the Département d’Études françaises “thinking about starting a program in digital narratives.”
Ultimately the different ideas came together in TAG. “As much as we are set up to play games and study how they are played the major focus of the project is to see what happens when you bring a bunch of folks together from across faculties around a common reference point (i.e. digital games) and then try and make something,” says Simon.
All of this makes sense in Montreal, where gaming and game design are thriving. Those interested began meeting and establishing a common language.
“The meetings have been so rich ,” says Hughes. “I remember looking around the table after a recent meeting and thinking how wonderful it was to have participants from art, sociology, history, English, education, applied human sciences along with graduate students all talking about games.”
For Simon, the opportunity to pool expertise has been enlightening on a number of levels.
“People like me have vastly unreal expectations of game design.” He described his idea to create a game using technology like the Wii (a current focus of study) to allow the player to manipulate a light sabre the way it’s done in the movies. “It took two seconds talking to Lynn to realize how challenging it might be.”
Re-imagining a game within the technological parameters of limited axes of movement, that still proves engaging for the player, becomes the challenge. “A lot of gaming is about illusion. It’s the relationship between what the technology offers and what the player wants.”
As the project uses seed funding supplied by the Office of Research, it has attracted attention from all quarters. TAG will benefit from the work of a post-doctoral fellow, and a high-profile visiting scholar over the next several months.
And next month, TAG will present the "Porous Lab" project in the Bourget Building, formerly the home of the MFA program, as part of Biennale Montreal 2009.
“This year’s theme is Open Culture and we want to set up the lab publicly so that people can ‘peek into’ what we do,” explains Hughes. ”We want to highlight a broad range of very innovative games that most people don't know exist.” She hopes the series of events slated for the lab will allow the public, participants and creators to interact with each other and the games.
For instance, LittleBigPlanet, currently one of the games available in TAG’s interactive lab, allows the player to customize the game.
Simon says he is working on a game for his young daughter. “I’ve been asking what my daughter likes and constructing challenges for her interest and skill level.”
And that kind of family cooperation is a long way from the anti-social player of yore.