Center for Video Games and Human Values
NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant proposal
October, 2008

Narrative

Enhancing the humanities through innovation

The Center for Video Games and Human Values, to be based at the University of Connecticut, will serve as an interdisciplinary nexus for online courses and online scholarly activities like symposia and research fellowships. All these activities will advance our understanding of how video games and their culture can constructively shape our values for the enrichment of society.

This proposal requests funding for the center’s effort to establish a groundbreaking virtual community as an online base of operations for the center’s courses and symposia. We will use the funds to pay the salaries of two groups of contributors: programmers and community-builders. With their help, we will deploy digital tools, including a virtual world, a wiki, and an educational social network to begin to create a culture of discussion about video games, which we believe society is in great need of.

As a medium that embraces the humanities and social sciences, technology, and the worlds of business and education, video games demand analysis from multiple angles and on multiple levels. We believe that video games have grown to extraordinary cultural prominence without benefit of such a truly interdisciplinary analysis; in particular, video games are a dominant cultural force among students now in the midst of their secondary and post-secondary education, only a few of whose teachers have any understanding of how gaming is shaping their students.


This analysis demands to be carried out online, in a fundamentally digital setting, for two reasons. First, since the games themselves are digital, a digitally humanistic approach to them provides affordances traditional scholarship does not—the capability to bring in digital examples, the potential for real laboratory experimentation incorporated as part of ongoing discussion. Second, because the players of the games are themselves spending much of their time online, and discussing their gaming there more and more, a digital online center will provide one crucial affordance in particular—the ability to address gamers where they almost literally live these days.

To meet the need for such analysis, the center will offer a slate of online courses aimed at several inter-related groups: teachers and parents, their advanced students, undergraduates in various disciplines, and interested people in the gaming culture, all of whom share a fundamental interest in ensuring that gaming earns the societal respect it deserves and increasingly deserves that respect. In order to address video games in their broad effect on culture and to engage gamers in its discussions, the center will advocate an approach that addresses popular and ambitious games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and World of Warcraft, demonstrating, for example, their cultural relationship to Homeric epic and their educational relationship to the way students who play them learn.

At the same time, the center will provide a (virtual) place for scholarly research and discussion about the relation of video games to values. Fellowships from the center will support individual research projects at the intersection of video gaming and scholars’ own disciplines, while the interdisciplinary nature of the center will provide extraordinary opportunities to strengthen those projects through the cross-fertilization of ideas from other fields. An ongoing virtual symposium, with a guest symposiast from a field such as game development or game journalism, on a topic like “Immersion” or “Character in Games,” will involve contributions from the fellows, their students, and the center’s alumni; the proceedings of this symposium will be compiled and published once a year.

We believe that video games’ greatest innovations in the humanities, as well as in education, business, and the social sciences, will arise from a deeper understanding of games’ connections among all these disciplines. When scholars and students alike understand these connections better, they will be better prepared to advance the state of gaming as it relates to their own fields.

The center will exist entirely online, and we hope to make that online existence a place to gather a community of learning and a laboratory for the study of what games are and can be. Using open-source tools like those from Sun Microsystem’s Projects Wonderland and Darkstar, we will create, and then build-up, a virtual center that will serve as the focus for a growing community of fellows, students, and alumni, to carry on the center’s work of learning both through online teaching and through online discussion.


With the funds from the NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant, we propose to bring together, online, a community of teachers and students who will transform the ongoing conversation about the place of video games in our culture. The start-up activities for the creation of this community will include 1) designing and implementing software solutions in a variety of inter-related spaces: an internet forum, a wiki, and most importantly a virtual world, and 2) managing the community so as to promote reasoned, civil conversation and strong intellectual contributions.

The current conversation about the place of video games in culture is spread very broadly across a great many different forums, ranging from academic programs in game studies and new media to disparate initiatives across a broad range of other academic programs in the humanities and the social sciences to the official forums of popular games like Halo and World of Warcraft to the mainstream media which are seemingly always looking to blame video gaming for the evils of society. To put it very broadly, the three legs of this discussion can’t make a table: mainstream culture, as represented by the media and by the legislatures trying to make good laws about games and occasionally by demagogues trying to stir up a culture war, doesn’t know that there are intelligent people who think that games have enormous positive potential whether artistic or educational; gamers, who represent an enormously powerful force in the marketplace and in the community, tend to reject out of hand any criticism of their gaming activity and disdain any attempt to make it respectable on the grounds that to do so would cede a point to the mainstream; while academics are understandably concerned with making their own research interests respectable, and tend to distance themselves both from the actual, disrepuable gamers and from the mainstream that has shown little interest in engaging video games on any level other than that of a childish pastime or that of a terrible threat to culture. We want to change that.

We don’t want to make games. While we think that the approach of the Serious Games Movement is a very important part of realizing games’ potential for civilization, CVGHV is about something quite different. We want to try to talk about video games, and encourage others to talk about them, in a way that actually engages their potential. Some of the games we talk about will be serious games, but many more of the games we talk about will be the popular games that are shaping cultural values for good and ill with a strength that we believe has gone unrecognized. Games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft demand a really interdisciplinary analysis; we believe that only a community convened from as many different disciplines as touch on the field of video games will be able to tell us as much as we need to know about the good things these games can bring about, and the bad things we need to mitigate.

Environmental Scan

A brand-new Pew/Internet and American Life study (http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_College_Gaming_Reporta.pdf) showing the near-dominance of video games in the lives of college students points towards, on one hand, the incredible power of video games, and on the other the growing interest in the social sciences in particular in what the impact of video games is and has been on our culture and society. 100% percent of the students surveyed had played games; 65% are regular players. We find that study an important impetus to a broader, interdiscplinary approach emerging from the humanities, as a way of contextualizing these developments that seem so new in the long cultural perspective that above all characterizes the humanities.

CVGHV is also quite different from any other project on the current landscape of digital humanities. Two projects in classics, the Perseus Project and the Stoa Consortium, both of which organize classical culture in digital form, demonstrate how innovative CVGHV will be from a classical perspective. CVGHV, briefly, looks forward from classics to modernity while those projects (laudably) look backward. More importantly, CVGHV seeks to create a new community and a new conversation, where Perseus and Stoa (laudably) seek to aid the existing community of lovers of antiquity.

Projects specifically to do with games and their culture are growing more and more numerous, but none incorporates interdiscplinarity in the groundbreaking way CVGHV seeks to do. Various new media, digital media, and game studies departments, such as those at MIT, Georgia Tech, and USC, provide many opportunities for interdisciplinary dialogue, but those programs are of course geared to produce graduates who will assume their place in some facet of the gaming culture. CVGHV on the other hand will offer courses to build a conversation between the academy and mainstream culture, and among academics in the liberal arts, academics in professional fields, teachers in the schools, and interested people in mainstream society.

Perhaps the closest parallel in the current landscape is to intiatives like the Games, Learning, and Society annual conference. GLS focusses, within the brief timespan of two days, on educational affordances of games. One of CVGHV’s missions will be to make that precise conversation part of a broader, ongoing, online dialogue among the center’s students, the center’s fellows, and the rest of the world, gaming and non-gaming. More importantly, the center’s mission, through the virtual community that NEH funds will help build, will bring that conversation into close contact with other conversations in different disciplines, like the conversation about the classical roots of gaming.

Finally, the semi-focussed efforts of the amazingly enthusiastic, and perceptive, community of gaming bloggers demand to be brought up in this context. There are a great many wonderful blogs that are already treading the same line between the academy and the mainstream culture; two of them are by participants in CVHGV, Michael Abbot’s justifiably famous “Brainy Gamer,” and Roger Travis’ “Living Epic.” These blogs, and many others like them, are beginning the conversation that we hope CVGHV will fertilize and grow to a size so great that even gaming’s critics will have to take note. Crucially, there are as yet only a very few academics who are paying attention to these blogs, and one of CVGHV’s first tasks, for which the virtual community built with the help of NEH will be an essential tool, will be to create a place where the conversation will include them, and continue to grow.

History and duration of the project

The idea for CVGHV began in a series of articles and talks by Roger Travis which emerged from a lecture to his classical mythology course in the spring of 2006. Travis moved from striking similarities in content between Virgil’s Aeneid and Bungie Studios’ Halo to a much broader consideration of how video games are reawakening the ancient bardic tradition of the Homeric epics. As Travis explored the subject matter, he realized that the investigation, with its implications not just for games but for culture as a whole, demanded an interdisciplinary approach. As the Homeric epics became the lodestar of Greek culture, and as their role in education and in culture more generally grounded a conversation that became the modern study of aesthetics, so, Travis realized, a new kind of conversation about video games and values could make extraordinary contributions not only in game studies, but across a very broad range of cultural practice.

On that basis, Travis began to convene the center, over the spring and summer of 2008. Michael Abbott of Wabash College, author of the renowned “Brainy Gamer” blog, and Jeffrey Howard, Ph.D. UTexas Austin, the author of the remarkable humanities-and-gaming book, Quests, were the first collaborators outside the University of Connecticut. Within UConn, Michael Young of the Neag School of Education joined. The center continues to grow and attract new interest both from the academic world and from gaming culture, and we see its future as taking a leading role in fostering throughout society knowledge of games’ constructive potential, continuing to build its community and to offer more opportunities for teachers and students to explore that potential.

In the winter and spring of 2009, Travis will offer CVGHV’s first two courses: a two week online non-credit course “Living Epic,” specifically aimed at elementary and secondary school teachers and parents, and a semester-long online credit-bearing course “(Gaming) Homer,” for advanced undergraduates. The students from these courses will make up the first population of the center’s community; with the help of NEH and other funding, we will build the tools necessary to make sure that community starts to flourish, and continues on to blossom into a leader in the field of humanities education. We will continue, as we are now, to apply for funding from large foundations, but it will also be of great use that we offer online courses to a general population, as the tuition from these courses will make the center self-sustaining at a basic level. With external funding, on the other hand, CVGHV will grow into a vibrant place, well known to anyone who wants to think seriously about games and values. We anticipate that in two years’ time, scholars and interested thinkers from outside the academy will think of CVGHV as the best place to start a games-and-culture conversation.

We are seeking Level II funding to create the virtual community of the Center for Video Games and Human Values. With a strong base of support from this community, made up of scholars, teachers, gamers, and non-gamers who are interested in what gaming is doing, we will be able to move on to the next phase of the project, the development and delivery of online courses that, together with the virtual community, will transform the cultural conversation about video games.

Our long-term vision for CVGHV is that it become the world leader in that conversation. As such, CVGHV would eventually be an ideal place for other NEH programs like humanities institutes and fellowship programs. We envision that the groundbreaking online existence of the center will provide extraordinary opportunities to develop the next generation of such programs, and will provide an example of exciting and effective deployment of technology in the study of the humanities.

Specifically, we are seeking funds to pay salaries of designers and programmers who will build the virtual world within which community activities like symposia, lectures, and informal discussions will take place.

Work Plan

In order to convene such a community, we seek funding for the following.

First, in a planning phase of the project (April-July 2009), the senior fellows and external advisors will meet with programmers and community-builders to talk about what kind of software tools exist for deployment in the field of social networks, wikis, discussion forums, and virtual worlds to create the kind of community we envision, and how those tools should be deployed.

These meetings will take place on-line in Project Wonderland; we plan to convene the entire staff of the center six times from April to July, for two hours per meeting. The agenda will comprise discussions of the following questions: what software tools exist for a robust, scholarly online interdisciplinary conversation? what is the current open-source state of the art in internet-forum-design, in wiki-design, in social-network-design, and especially in virtual-world-design? what kinds of integration are possible among these solutions and video games (e.g. data feeds from MMOG worlds to internet forums as we find in game-communities like World of Warcraft)?

Most importantly, we will decide what sort of virtual world we will implement. How will rooms be designed? What will the overall look and feel be? What applications can we incorporate for things like document sharing?

At this stage we will also identify the programmers, including the lead programmer, who will be able to implement these software tools, and incorporate them into our discussions. Ideally, we will be able to find graduate students to be our programmers, but if necessary we will contract for programmers’ services through the University of Connecticut’s contractor-relationships. Grant funds will be used to pay a program coordinator and software programmers for their time.

Second, in a design phase (July-December 2009), with the help of the personnel identified in the planning phase, we will design the center based on available tools. In smaller, shorter meetings conducted every two weeks, various groups of center personnel will meet to review their progress in the design process. We will also roll out the design concepts to the center community, which will already include students, teachers-as-students, and scholars, as it will then exist (on the rudimentary tools currently available) for their reviews and reactions, which are bound to be strong and insightful, given the natural confluences of interest between the center’s courses and the development of its community.

Third, in an implementation phase (January-October 2010), we will build the center with help from the center’s community itself, and launch the first center’s first fully-realized virtual symposium. The small bi-weekly meetings will continue, as will a continuous roll-out of features for testing by members of the center’s community. The entire process will undergo scrutiny within the community as it exists at that time. The topic for that first symposium will be “Immersion and Mimesis: Video Games, Aesthetics, and Society.”

Staff

Roger Travis, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut, will direct the project. He will convene the center’s senior fellows to deliberate on the composition of the center’s online community. With advice from the lead programmer, Travis and the senior fellows will identify and oversee the design of the center’s online components. As the implementation proceeds, Travis will oversee the community-building efforts and their integration into the ongoing course-work of the center. Travis will devote 10 hours/week over the course of the grant period to these activities.

Senior fellow Michael Young, Professor of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, will be the senior fellow in charge of the participatory learning component of the center. He will advise on planning, deisgn, and implementation for the optimization of the center’s educational potential.He will devote two hours per week over the course of the grant period.

Senior fellow Michael Abbott, Associate Professor of Theater Arts at Wabash College, will be the senior fellow in charge of blogger-relations. He will advise on planning, design, and implementation in order to include the tremendous potential of the blogosphere for community-building in the center’s community. He will devote five hours per week over the course of the grant period.

The other senior fellows, Sara Johnson, Manuela Wagner, Gary English, and Kirstie Cope-Farrar, will advise on planning, design, and implementation from the perspectives of their own interest in the games-and-humanities conversation. They will devote approximately an hour per week to the project.

Kevin Roebuck of Sun Microsystems’ open-source Project Wonderland will serve as a consultant on the project. Project Wonderland is the software solution we presume we will deploy for the most vibrant and exciting part of the center, its virtual world.

Jeffrey Howard, Ph.D., will serve as a program coordinator and community manager. Howard will participate in the discussions of the planning and design phases, and in the implementation phase will oversee the integration of the various parts of the community from a cultural standpoint. He will also participate in the design of game-integrated aspects of the community, like quests and levelling. Howard’s position will be funded by the NEH grant, and he will devote ten hours per week to the project over the course of the grant period.

A lead programmer will be responsible for advising the director and the senior fellows on the range of opne-source software solutions that might go into the make-up of the center, and for overseeing the implementation of the solutions on which they decide. He will devote ten hours per week to the project over the course of the grant period. The lead programmer will be an experienced programmer in Java and php. He will be responsible for coding solutions in the areas of internet forums, wikis, social networks, and virtual worlds. He will be knowledgeable in open-source solutions currently available in those areas, and ready to code attractive and robust virtual community digital tools for the Center for Video Games and Human Values.

Final Product and Dissemination

The center will produce results in two channels: first, the ongoing conversation itself will remain freely available; second, the proceedings of each year’s virtual symposium will be published online (and/or in print, if a press finds that desirable), including both substantial contributions from the center’s fellows and comments from other members of the center’s community.

The white paper that details the center’s activities undertaken through the start-up grant will present, we hope, a set of best practices with respect to engaging gamers and interested non-gamers in a conversation that enriches the cultural experience of both groups.