Science and the Arts meet in the middle

Edmonton-Society needs new language for games. Geoffrey Rockwell, a recent addition to the humanities computing program and the Department of Philosophy, says it's time to stop looking at compu

14 October 2008

Edmonton-Society needs new language for games.

Geoffrey Rockwell, a recent addition to the humanities computing program and the Department of Philosophy, says it's time to stop looking at computer games like they're separate from the rest of human entertainment.

"There's a lot of anxiety around computer games," he said. "You get psychologists doing these studies about whether computer games make children more violent. What we should be doing is developing a language similar to the critical discourse we have around literature.

"We've developed a very sophisticated, critical discourse for understanding how novels work, understanding their traditions, how they're made, and that's what the humanities do. They look at some of the finest work of human imagination, and computer games are very sophisticated works of human imagination."

Rockwell, who came to the U of A from McMaster University in July, studies interactivity in games.

"Interactivity, in and of itself, is one of the things that distinguishes play, and therefore computer games," he said. "When two people are playing tennis, they're not playing tennis for a reason. It's not like, 'Let's go play tennis, and by the end of it, we'll have that report written.' They're interacting with each other on the tennis court, for the joy of interacting with each other. It's self-fulfilling."

Interactivity is important in understanding the 'new' in new media, he says.

"The thing that makes human works different on the computer is their interactivity. The author of the book does not think about how you're going to interact with the book. The author probably doesn't even talk to the person who designed the page layout. But the author of a multimedia work has to think about how that interaction happens, and that is especially true of games."

But teaching about new media holds a new set of challenges, he says.

"We're so accustomed as professors to striking a pose of knowing far more than our students. The new media field is one where our students often know more than us," said Rockwell. "In my previous job, I taught an undergraduate class on computer games and there was no doubt as I designed this course that half the class had played far more games than I had.

"But that doesn't mean that I didn't have things to offer in terms of a much more rigorous way of thinking things through and understanding the literature and the intellectual traditions."

Professors in the field have to open themselves up to let the students be part of the course, he says.

"We want students to be able to think about these subjects. Any factual information I give them about these subjects is going to be out of date almost immediately," he said. "The thing that doesn't go out of date is 'thinking through.' We want to give them as much exercise as possible at thinking through. We want them to listen to people, to have thought things through in really superb ways; we want them to read and find examples of people thinking stuff through; we want them to compare arguments and we want them to practice it over and over again.

"We want them to confront their ideas."

Rockwell also works in computer-assisted text analysis research, including the Text Analysis Portal for Research program, a collaboration by six Canadian universities to build a centralized gateway to sophisticated text-analysis tools.

"It sounds dry, but most of the web is text, and one of the primary ways in which we represent ourselves over time is textual, whether it's our archives, laws or high culture," he said. "The computer and the Internet are dramatically changing how text is consumed and deployed and manipulated. In particular, they're allowing us to write software that does things to text, visualizes it, analyzes it, gathers it."

The sheer overwhelming volume of new information that appears on the Internet on a daily basis will present ever-increasing challenges to people who are looking for specific information, says Rockwell.

"In some sense, Google was a response to there being too much information for any organization to classify it fast enough as it came out. My gut tells me that we're getting to the point where Google doesn't work either."

Rockwell will be teaching core subjects in the humanities computing master's program as well as a course on computers and culture for the Department of Philosophy.

"One of the things I found very attractive about the U of A is that there are people like Sean Gouglas, who looks at games, and Stan Ruecker, who looks at design and interactivity, but we also have the Department of Computing Science that is very strong on gaming," he said. "Then, to make things really fantastic, there's a great working relationship between humanities computing and computing science. I was very interested in being a part of something that's already happening here, the scientific and engineering perspective on computer games, alongside the arts and humanities perspective."

This article originally appeared in the University of Alberta's ExpressNews

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