Enhancing Humanity

“Humanity has always lived in both a ‘real’ or physical world and also in a ‘virtual’ world. The real world demands that humans engage in labor intensive tasks in order to biologically survive. The virtual world occurs during leisure and makes no demands, and yet it is also part of the ‘biological imperative,’ for its function is to enhance one’s humanity.” – Dr. Elliot Avedon

Waterloo, Ontario, a small city largely impacted by its temporary student residents (approximately 17 percent of its population when classes are in session), may be one of the most fascinating regions in the world for the future of game development.

Recently the Intelligent Community Forum rated Waterloo the “top intelligent community of 2007.” It possesses an unusually high per-capita population of PhDs and a university known as “the MIT of Canada” – the University of Waterloo – which in turn possesses the highest-ranked department of Leisure Studies in North America.

And Waterloo’s game museum, the Elliot Avedon Museum and Archive of Games, is the only museum in the world that focuses purely on games.

The Elliot Avedon Museum and Archive of Games
Founded in 1971, just three years after the establishment of Waterloo’s department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, the museum originated as the private collection of Dr. Elliot Avedon, for whom it was renamed in 2000, five years after his retirement from the department.

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Dr. Avedon got his start in the study of play with the U.S. Army when he was assigned to a squadron recreation center. When he got out, he entered the department of recreation at William & Mary, which, unlike other recreation programs at the time, was not housed with physical education, but with sociology. “I got a different slant on the place of recreation in people’s minds,” he said.

The distinction between “toy” and “game” has been accepted as necessary by ludologists for some time, but Dr. Avedon’s reflects a unique perspective: “A game is an encapsulated social system. … A toy takes on the attributes that the player wants,” he says. Two people can never truly enjoy a toy in the same way, due to the individual fantasy that specifically brings that toy to life in the player’s mind. A game, by contrast, is experienced identically between players, whether they are separated by the span of an arm, or a hundred years of history; they may follow different paths, but because a game is defined by its rules, it is definitively experienced in a singular, repeatable fashion. This effect also makes a game a time capsule, both a product and representation of the culture in which it was created – the reason for Dr. Avedon’s intense anthropological and sociological interest in games as cultural artifacts.

The museum today possesses over 5,000 articles, and, indeed, the challenge of restricting its contents is greater than the challenge of filling it. The museum website receives approximately 25,000 hits per month from 141 countries all over the world – a testament to the value and broad application of its mission.

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The Universality Of Play
Although the Avedon Museum is maintained by the department of Recreation and Leisure studies, and its parent department in Applied Health Sciences, study of its contents is carried out by a broad array of specialists in Anthropology, History, Psychology, Mathematics, Systems Engineering, Military Science, Languages and Literature, Rehabilitation, and Computer Science – and that’s the short list.

One of the challenges inherent in either studying or developing games is their intensely cross-disciplinary nature. Combine this with their status as the pre-eminent new media of this century, and the most difficult thing about starting a new academic game studies program is keeping other departments out of it. Games have applications in and employ the disciplines of nearly every academic department; they are, as Dr. Avedon says, simulations of our perceptions of reality, and, to date, no other expressive art form has their breadth and complexity.

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But the concept of “play” is as old as sentience itself, and our drive to comprehend our world through play is as fundamental. “Everybody’s trying to find order in their lives,” Dr. Avedon says, and adds that this desire has only increased in modern times. “Games allow you to step back from the chaos and recapitulate that sense of recreation.”

In the late ’80s, Dr. Avedon taught an evening course at Columbia University called Introduction to Recreation. It averaged over 300 attendees – despite the fact that there were nowhere near 300 students in the Recreation & Leisure Studies program altogether. The majority came from other disciplines. “I found it intriguing which fields latched onto games,” he said. Economics students, engineering students, they all found applications for the human study of play. And the computer science department was so incensed by the number of their students taking the course that they stopped giving credit for it.

High And Low Art
The study of games, specifically in the sociological field of “recreation studies,” is not common. When they do study electronic media, scholars in this field have frequently flocked around television as the growing new media concern of the past several decades. In addition to speaking with Dr. Avedon about the museum and sociological study of games, I spoke with Dr. Roger Mannell, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

“People who develop television programs for children have the same concerns [as game developers],” Dr. Mannell said. He once was a columnist for the Canadian magazine Psychology and Life, and says that the most response he ever received to one of his articles was a piece on “immunizing your children against television” – a full-engagement approach to addressing the television scare that now seems remarkably similar to methods recommended by modern organizations like Common Sense Media for games. Engage your children, psychologists and sociologists said, and give them a context with which to process what they experience. It’s taken years and a storm of redundant media fervor, but the “new” conclusion on videogames is identical: Talk to your kids.

Strangely, despite the established history of Recreation Studies programs, modern game programs in academia rarely have contact with them; the odd program will involve a game psychology course, or a weird base in “communication” studies, but that’s as close as it gets. These bridges have not yet been built, in spite of the commonalities between television media studies and game violence studies, and in spite of the clear data gathering and social programming applications of sociology on game design. Game designers frequently approach the design process as either artistic, mathematical or “interdisciplinary” beyond description, ignoring the fact that games – and play – are, above and before all other things, human.

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The study of sociology responds to human complexity through the application of deductive, not inductive, reason. How would games change if, instead of firing blindly under the auspices of art, designers instead learned the fundamentals of charting human behavioral patterns and studied the basics of play on a social – not just cognitive – level? If we admitted that play is not impermeably mysterious and sought to temper our art with data, and the study of human nature in action? How would game development change if, instead of saying “I think this might be fun,” a game designer started with “field tests show that nine out of 10 people in our target demographic find this mechanic fun”?

A Perfect Storm
The University of Waterloo and its surrounding region, whether knowing or not, possess a rare game design education trinity: a phenomenally strong sociology program in the study of recreation; a world-renowned technology center and computer science hub; and proximity to a strong, established game studio in the form of Denis Dyack’s Silicon Knights. But is a game design curriculum on the horizon?

“I suspect we might get there eventually,” Dr. Mannell says. Dr. Avedon agrees, and says that he raised the subject of a Chair of Ludology with the university – but the discussion concluded that such a cross-disciplinary position would have to be planned very carefully. Would that other universities smelling the fresh blood of this hot new field of study elected such care and wisdom.

Building scaffolding on a frontier is unavoidably difficult. But I hope that Waterloo makes the attempt.

“Unfortunately, throughout the ages, there have been those who have not only downplayed the virtues of recreation and its modalities, but have negated its life generating force – indicating that recreation is destructive to the real world. These negative voices have been around since the dawn of time, yet humanity continues to ‘sing instead of talking, and dance instead of walking,’ and continues to invent games.” – Dr. Elliot Avedon

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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