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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 05:50 GMT 06:50 UK
Academics take on video games
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Copenhagen

The impact of video games on culture and society is a topic of serious study, with a Danish research centre leading the way in the normally stodgy world of academia.

Big-screen TV at the centre
Rigorous study requires the right equipment
The Center for Computer Games Research at Copenhagen's Information Technology University is truly one of a kind.

For starters, it is one of the few places in the world where you can do PhD-level work in video game studies.

The centre's purpose is to study how games are both made and played. The scholars here would like to use that knowledge to help design better games in the future.

Such rigorous study requires the right equipment, of course.

The centre's game room features a giant, flat panel television, complete with surround sound speakers. Follow the tangled mass of cords and leads, and you can find every available console gaming system.

Against the wall sits a set of shelves filled with all the latest titles.

Childhood reward

For a dozen or so academics, this gaming paradise is home. They like to try to convince you that they spend the bulk of their days in their offices, researching, thinking, and writing.

Screenshot from Super Monkey Ball
Games like Super Monkey Ball are said to improve co-ordination
But do not be fooled. The centre's scholars also spend a lot of time in the game room, playing titles like Super Monkey Ball.

In case you are wondering what there is to say, academically, about Super Monkey Ball, it is an interesting example of how games help players develop hand-eye coordination.

The multi-player mode, I am told, also makes for a good study in human rivalries.

Jonas Schmidt, a PhD candidate at the centre, started gaming when he was a child. He always hoped there would be a reward.

"It was weird to think that there would be some sort of pay-off for all of the hours spent," said Mr Schmidt.

"You know, telling our parents this, but they didn't believe us. They should see this."

Explosion in interest

The Center for Computer Games Research got its official start last year. As part of the IT University, it is funded entirely by the Danish government.

It's the place in the world that seems to take game research most seriously these days, the place that really had a strategy for dealing with games research
Espen Aarseth, Norwegian scholar
The idea grew out of an academic conference on games back in 2001.

The conference was organised by two scholars now at the centre. Lisbeth Klastrup, one of the organisers, says that to her surprise, the conference drew 140 scholars from around the world.

"It demonstrated to this university that here was an area that had a lot of potential," said Dr Klastrup.

"And it was a very conscious choice on behalf of the university to support the game theme. I think it was a convergence of political and also academic interest happening at the same time."

Academic interest in games has, like the industry itself, exploded in recent years.

Universities across the globe have been adding computer game design and theory courses to their curricula.

Norwegian scholar Espen Aarseth was looking for ways to bring his expertise in literature and linguistics to the field of game studies.

He says that the centre in Copenhagen was a natural choice.

"It's the place in the world that seems to take game research most seriously these days, the place that really had a strategy for dealing with games research," said Professor Aarseth.

That strategy is fairly straightforward.

The centre tries to keep an open mind when it comes to game studies.

Theory and practice

Economists, sociologists, political scientists and philosophers are all welcome to focus a critical eye on games.

Researchers at the centre
A hard day at the office then?
"I've tried to figure out what kind of academic discipline could not be used to study games, and the only thing I could come up with is dentistry," joked Prof Aarseth.

"But of course, when I suggested this at a games conference in Finland a few years ago, there was a dentist who objected in the audience. So, any discipline you can imagine can be used to study games."

The research projects at the centre do run a wide gamut.

One Spanish academic is looking at the ethics of games. Another scholar wants to explore educational uses for commercial computer games. Still another focuses on women and women's issues in gaming.

There are also people here like Jesper Juul, who is focusing on the practice of designing games.

"I think it's very easy to fall into this divide where you either do theory, or practice," said Dr Juul.

"I think it's very important that we keep both things in play at the same time, and have them talk to each other.

"And we are finding out that the theory that we are doing does actually influence and inform design, and vice versa."

The very nature of computer games is changing thanks to the interplay between theory and design.

Virtual life

Titles like Doom 3, with its battles against aliens and monsters, are still popular.

We're still not sure what games are. That will hopefully be a question that takes us a long time to answer.
Lisbeth Klastrup, Center for Computer Games Research
But not as popular as The Sims, a human simulator that lets you create a person, and follow along as that person lives out a virtual life, from birth to death, on-screen.

Instead of slaying aliens, you send your character on mundane missions, like getting the paper, taking out the trash, or dancing and flirting with a potential mate.

The centre's Gonzalo Frasca says that popularity of The Sims is proof that the world of computer gaming is becoming not only broader, but deeper.

"Aliens and monsters and trolls and every possible nasty creature have their place on the computer," said Mr Frasca.

"But I also think humans have a place, and humans carry their issues, their politics and their problems, and that's why we're going to see more and more of those on the computer screen."

And that ultimately means more work for academics interested in computer games.

"We're still not sure what games are," says the centre's Dr Klastrup with a laugh. "That will hopefully be a question that takes us a long time to answer."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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