Stanford Report Online

Computer games under sociological microscope in Cantor exhibit


If you've relegated computer games to the status of adolescent entertainment, then the exhibit "Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences: Storytelling and Computer Games" at the Cantor Arts Center has a message for you.

"Wake up," said Henry Lowood, the exhibit's guest curator and a curator for the History of Science and Technology Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. The exhibit is derived from research conducted in a Stanford Humanities Laboratory project by Lowood and other scholars, which proposes that computer games and simulations are the emerging narrative form and communication medium of the early 21st century.

A reproduction of Jon Haddock’s digital artwork, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School Cafeteria,is on view at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center

People under 30 need little convincing. "You just have to snap your fingers on this campus and undergraduate students who are interested in this topic start falling from the trees," said Lowood, a historian who has taught a popular course, History of Computer Game Design: Technology, Culture, Business, in the Program in Science, Technology and Society for four years. Lowood cited a recent survey that showed approximately 40 percent of people under the age of 20 identify computer games as the medium most important to them.

Yet a large segment of the population, including middle-aged parents worried about their children playing computer games, knows little about them, Lowood said. That imbalance is one of the things the exhibit is designed to address, he said.

"We're opening up the discussion about games, in the sense that people will have more direct knowledge or be encouraged to find out more about what is going on in these virtual worlds and what these games are about," he said. "I think that's very important for something that is becoming a mass medium."

The exhibit traces the history of computer and video games through a collection of artifacts, many from the media collection that Lowood is assembling in the library. The visual effect of some underscores the rapid evolution of the medium. Packaging for a 1987 game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, looks quaintly vintage, for instance; a chunky cassette for a 1983 Star Wars game looks antique. The exhibit also includes the linear antecedents of graphical games, such as the text-based Adventure (1976), where players typed in instructions to navigate through a fantasy world. Lowood, whose academic and personal interest in games and gaming communities developed through playing and consulting for board games that simulated historical events, loaned his own 1976 copy of a Dungeons & Dragons booklet to the exhibit.

Housed in two small galleries and along one side of the mezzanine above the Cantor Center's main lobby, the exhibit also includes a digital timeline and documentary videos of game play that illustrate how storytelling elements like plot, character development and game settings have evolved in computer games. Visitors also can play computer games themselves: Zork (1980), The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and Baldur's Gate II (2000) show the progression from text-based to graphical adventure to role-playing games.

A networked, "massively multiplayer" game -- Star Wars Galaxies (2003) --also is projected on a gallery wall. The ability of players to interact with games has fundamentally changed them, Lowood said. Computer games, once seen as commercial products or a one-way communication between designer and player, are now seen as a much more open kind of medium that people can contribute to in other ways, he said. "So much of the content of a game is now generated by players. Games have become a platform that people can use creatively. As a medium, computer games offer many different opportunities for people to express themselves -- including artistic expression and political expression."

Cases in point are six works on display by artist Jon Haddock. Haddock draws scenes of events, including the Columbine shootings and the anonymous man who faced down tanks at Tiananmen Square, as computer game screenshots. Along with curating the Stanford exhibit, Lowood is co-curator of "Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts" at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which examines the influence of computer games on artistic invention. (That exhibit will remain on display until April 4.)

Additionally, a conference, "Story Engines: A Public Program on Storytelling and Computer Games," will be held at the Fairchild Auditorium on Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Presenters will include Lowood; Scott Bukatman, associate professor of art and art history; lecturer Katherine Isbister and graduate student Casey Alt (who collaborated with Lowood on the exhibit); and game designers Will Wright, creator of "The Sims" and other games; Haden Blackman, creator of games including Star Wars titles; and Warren Spector, creator of "Wing Commander" and many others.

The impetus for the conference was to create a public platform where both scholars and game designers could talk about ideas like interactivity, community, realism and storytelling, Lowood said. "It will be very accessible."

"Fictional worlds, Virtual Experiences: Storytelling and Computer Games," will be on display at Cantor Arts Center until March 28.