"You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!": Fighting Indians, Playing Games, Forming Disciplines
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“You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!”:
Fighting Indians, Playing Games, Forming Disciplines
Abstract

We are about four or five years into the formation of a new discipline, that of digital game studies. At this early stage, digital game studies is necessarily and self-consciously concerned with its own formation, and recent commentators have differed over whether digital games should become part of an already existing discipline like cinema, literary, new media, or cultural studies or whether it needs to resist such "colonizing" attempts and develop into a discipline of its own, with a coherent object of study and institutional support. This essay agrees with the warnings against the kind of methodological blindnesses likely to result from such colonizations--that games will be understood as just a more interactive kind of film or narrative--but argues nonetheless that each of these disciplines (and others) is likely to have valuable conceptual tools that we need to carefully adapt for game studies. Moreover, it's sometimes precisely the historical baggage of the old disciplines that provides insight into the structure of game use. This essay argues that the ideological content of one series of influential games, Sid Meier's Civilization series, comes to light when the historical, disciplinary blindness to forms of American imperialism in American literary studies are considered. The Civilization games transform and display the symbolic Native presence in the land whose accidental, terrestrial effects in the games must be destroyed in order for the player to win the game; however, and moving beyond the kind of ideological representations found in film or narrative, in these games the users must perform their logic, a logic which is coded into the very rules of the game. Games like Civilization thus rehearse a series of lessons about national destiny, race and colonization, and the moral fitness of civilizations and individuals. --cd

We are about four or five years into the formation of a new discipline, digital game studies. Though by one account computer games have been around for more than four decades (Aarseth), and by another computer and video game sales in the United States are rivaling movie box office sales (Frauenfelder), academic attention to the medium has come relatively recently. At this early stage, digital game studies is necessarily and self-consciously concerned with its own formation, and is heavily engaged with an argument about whether this new phenomenon is to be swallowed by already existing disciplines, or whether it needs to and could develop into a discipline of its own, with a coherent object of study and institutional support. 2001 was an interesting year in this regard. Espen Aarseth, whose Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature aims to unseat “hypertext” as the paradigm for studying electronic literature, editorializes in the inaugural issue of the new online journal Game Studies that “2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field.” As editor of Game Studies, Aarseth notes “the very early stage we are still in, where the struggle of controlling and shaping the theoretical paradigms has just started.” His editorial both invites and warns, however, as he cautions against the “colonizing attempts” of other disciplines: “Making room for a new field usually means reducing the resources of the existing ones, and the existing fields will also often respond by trying to contain the new area as a subfield. Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again.” The problem, Aarseth argues, is the kind of methodological blindnesses that would be imported into digital game studies along with other baggage. While “we all enter this field from somewhere else, from anthropology, sociology, narratology, semiotics, film studies, etc., and the political and ideological baggage we bring from our old field inevitably determines and motivates our approaches,” Aarseth envisions “an independent academic structure” (of which Game Studies would surely stand as one institution) as the only viable way for digital game studies to avoid obscuring its object through inappropriate lenses borrowed from other fields.

Also in 2001, the October issue of PMLA contained an article on the...