In the Shadow of Huizinga: Games Studies and Cultural History

I first became aware of Johan Huizinga and his keywords homo ludens via the upper warrens of the video essay rabbit hole a few years ago, but once I was on the lookout for him, I started to see him everywhere. Not only in references and footnotes from other amateurs and scholars in the field of games studies, where his work is foundational, but all around me, subtly: in everyday interactions, in the fiction I read, in politics I couldn’t tune out; in just the way when you learn a new word, you suddenly find it coming up serendipitously left and right. Even where his name is absent, Huizinga’s key insights and concepts–the play aspect of culture, the game-like nature of human reality delineated by the magic circle or field of play–are so universal and so interesting as to crop up almost of their own accord and in the strangest places.

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Breathing Fire

Red, white, and blue. No green in the United States’ flag, unlike Brazil’s. Nothing green about our leaves, either. Those that haven’t turned to ash and smoke are changing color and falling on their own.

The fire next time has sparked every year by this time, somewhere in California or the Amazon, and it burns unabated somewhere down the front page. I take it to be a kind of hunger, a parched thirst, an insanity, really–or bewitchment–that we go on reading the news at all. But we read it compulsively, first thing in the morning and in the middle of the night, be it on an actual news outlet or the ever-expanding hell of social media, and like Tantalus, we can only gnash our teeth.

In that time we could, if we chose, write our myriads of books, or read the myriad more books we’ve been wanting to read or re-read, or play a little video games. The uses of free time, even for such small choices as what to read or whether to write, are an enchanted wood, in which besides the many paths not taken, there are the will o’ the wisps luring us off to impossible feasts and dances, to deep darknesses thronged with monstrous spiders. The wood is crossed by forgetful streams, but it’s also flown over by emperor butterflies, if The Hobbit is any guide:

In the end he poked his head above the roof of the leaves, and then he found spiders all right. But they were only small ones of ordinary size, and they were after the butterflies. Bilbo’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light. He could hear the dwarves shouting up at him from far below, but he could not answer, only hold on and blink. The sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a long while before he could bear it. When he could, he saw all round him a sea of dark green, ruffled here and there by the breeze; and there were everywhere hundreds of butterflies. I expect they were a kind of ‘purple emperor,’ a butterfly that loves the tops of oak-woods, but these were not purple at all, they were a dark dark velvety black without any markings to be seen.

He looked at the ‘black emperors’ for a long time, and enjoyed the feel of the breeze in his hair and on his face; but at length the cries of the dwarves, who were now simply stamping with impatience down below, reminded him of his real business.

– in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien

Somewhere in the wood live the elves, and somewhere else, off-stage, lurks the Necromancer…but that’s a story for another time.

Like The Hobbit, most video games sooner or later face us with a dragon. It might not be the ultimate evil within the world of the game, but for symbolic power a dragon is hard to beat. Tolkien, again, makes the point once and for all:

A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.

– from Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Along with a handful of other images–trees, fire, water, the underworld–dragons have to be about the most concise way of imagining all of what is at stake in our favorite stories. They incorporate each of the others, with their green scales, fire breath, flowing movement, flight and depth–and they guard the treasure.

Starmen.Net EarthBound Walkthrough: Magicant (2)
The dragon sings you the sixth melody in MOTHER
In EarthBound, in exchange for a book, we get the power to breathe fire…
…with an item that temporarily turns us into dragons

So when the real world gets to be too much and we’d really rather read fantasy books or play video games than watch another debate between the Red Dragon and the Blue, I don’t think it’s just escapism. If there is a solution to the real problems we face, I think it is there, implicit, in The Hobbit and EarthBound and Final Fantasy and the rest. In playing and reading, we are getting closer to it: saving the world.

Video Game Studies in Brazil

The idea of learning from video games could take us to some unexpected places. It’s not too much of a stretch for me to say (with Toby Fox, so I feel like I’m in pretty good company) that playing old RPGs taught me to read. Even a fighting game like Street Fighter II, besides the hand-eye coordination it builds up and the discipline it instills, has an element of geography to it.


And spending enough time reading online, in turn, leads back to video games. For whatever reason, lately has been recommending papers to me via email, like this one on teaching Final Fantasy X. (Be careful about clicking any of these links if you have an account on academia, because their overeager algorithm will probably start sending you a bunch of emails, too.) I don’t mind so much, but it’s a little stressful to realize just how much is out there. And I worry that the more I read, the more rabbit holes I’ll fall down.

Oddly enough, the majority of the papers on video game studies turning up in my inbox have been from outside the US, hailing above all from Brazil. My reading knowledge of Portuguese is very limited, but the convention of including an abstract in English provides a glimpse of the content at least. And there’s always google translate.

If nothing else, skimming through them and browsing their references turns up other material undergirding the arguments, suggesting authorities in the field and unexpected connections.

There’s a “Conversation on Archaeogaming”, whatever that is. I’m sure I’ll contact a few of the authors to see if they’re willing to set up some further conversations about these papers and their current research. A piece on “Video Game Music on the Internet: Nostalgia and Esthetics on YouTube” sounds right up my alley, as does another on literature and video games.

Reading just the epigraph to that one sent me to find the lyrics to this variation on Terra’s Theme, and then to the Pray vocal compilation. Uematsu’s message there is reminiscent of Itoi’s beautiful “What EarthBound Means to Me,” and both of these seem to recall the function of prayer in EarthBound, so crucial to the message of that game as a whole.

Which brings us back to Undertale… so more on that next week.

One last essay in this connection, “The music is the only thing you don’t have to mod” takes its title from the ROM-hacking and modding community. Music and modding, of course, are key for the development of Undertale, and both are high on my personal list of things I wish I knew more about.

I can’t think of a better way to keep on learning than by playing the Zelda theme on the piano and reading everything about game design that comes my way.

Professor Kozlowski Recommends

Cribbing and quoting loosely from the tail-end of this lively, expletive-laced Bonus episode of Ben’s podcast, where you can also find lectures on mythology and philosophy, here are some great starting points for the aspiring video game academician.

Hume Lecture, Sections 10, 12 by Professor Kozlowski Lectures • A ...

Obviously, the first one is Extra Credits. If you want to know anything about history or mythology, there’s some fascinating stuff, but they started as a video game show. Their list of recommendations highlights games in the weird, alternative indie scene.

I can’t recommend Crash Course enough. Series on world history and philosophy, but also history of science… Even more to the point, explore their series on navigating the internet. If you want to know how to distinguish good news from BS, go watch that.

Errant Signal is a web series dedicated to deep dives into themes and gameplay, with insights on big new games and games from otherwise unknown developers. The work is meticulous, treating both the business of making games and the question of what games can say and do.

Innuendo Studios’ flagship, the alt-right playbook, explores how bad actors dominate the media and manipulate people. To understand how social engineering functions and how to get your voice heard, or how to protect yourself from those who do, is invaluable, whichever side of the political spectrum you’re on.

Just as a fun one, Super Bunnyhop uses video games to talk about really smart stuff in the industry and the world at large.

Lastly, myself! Why not?

Reviewing the Literature

For a while now, we’ve been making podcast courses as we play through great video games together. We’re running our first live course now, an Intro to Video Game Studies. Another thing we like doing here at the Academy, and that we want to do more of in the future, is reading great books together. It’s awesome to see the whole world catch on to the possibilities of online discussion, though the circumstances are not ideal. Perhaps there’s something about getting to talk in person which doesn’t come across in a video chat, and we’ll all be glad when we’re allowed to see our friends again face to face, but there are still wonderful kinds of connections we can make across the distance that separates us. Books, which have always found a way to speak to us through time and space, are more valuable than ever, particularly well-suited to the demands of distance education.

“Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.” –Stefan Zweig, Montaigne

If only I could read Japanese, the Kato-Mitsuda collaboration Kirite would be an open book to me

The more we study games, the more it behooves us to familiarize ourselves with the existing scholarship on them, and with people currently engaged in it. So this is the main kind of literature we have in mind to review. There’s never been a better time to access the wealth of information out there; our aim is to make it better known and applicable for those, like us, just starting out in the field.

Patrick Holleman, one of those scholars we’ve been fortunate to talk to on the Xenogears podcast, very graciously sent his shortlist of video game studies resources to add to our own. He singled out Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World for the student of RPGs and recommended the research gathered at the Critical Distance Compilation. In terms of the peculiar intertextuality Xenogears invites, he suggested a range of works of literature, psychology, mysticism, and popular culture to consider, which we’ve added to the course page. And though he didn’t list them, rest assured that his own books on games such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI and VII are on our shortlist to read.

In the coming weeks, we’ll begin offering our takes on more of the major texts in video game studies, classic and contemporary alike. If you’d like to participate, keep an eye out for courses on ludology and intertextuality inspired by playing games and dedicated to promoting the old-fashioned joys of reading books.