Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia
Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.
The Asiascape hosted Beyond Utopia is a Leiden University project funded by NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) concerned with identifying the potentials of artistic media such as manga, anime, and video games for expression, criticism, and intervention in political thinking.
On August 27 Martin Roth, one of the project's three PhD candidates, was the first to get the degree for his research on the political potential of video games. An historic PhD degree it seems; it is Leiden's Faculty of Humanities first one ever in this field.
Below a translation of an article by Bart Braun in Leiden University newspaper Mare about Martin and his PhD thesis. The original article in Dutch is available on Mare Online.
(translation by Asiascape.org)
The academic interest for games has finally reached Leiden: last month the Faculty of Humanities bestowed its first PhD degree in this field.
‘Games encourage us to explore alternatives’.
In the 1950’s the University of Manchester assisted in the development of the worlds first commercially available computer: the Ferranti Mark 1. It consisted of a huge box containing over four thousand vacuum tubes, built under the supervision of the legendary computer scientist Alan Turing.
This computer outperformed the mechanical calculators of the time and you could also use it to play chess. When you entered your move with a punch card, the computer presented a countermove after 20 minutes. The human opponent then had to put this move on a wooden chessboard; the Mark 1 was not equipped with a monitor to display the course of the game. If you were smart enough to understand the punch card hassle, you were likely to beat it at chess because the machine could not think more than two moves ahead. But still, depending on the definition, this was the first computer game of all time.
The computer game has come a long way since. Monitors came and more and more beautiful things could be seen on it. Apart from programmers, composers, authors, actors and artists all participate in the creation of a game and the computer games business forms the largest branch of the entertainment industry. Destiny, the console game that was released this week, cost 500 million dollars to make, almost twice as much as the most expensive movie ever.
Games have gained enormously in popularity and sales, yet they command little respect. Music and film can be considered art; the written word literature and interactive artworks in museums receive praise. But the real culture vultures turn their noses up at a mix of all these elements.
The academic interest in games is lagging behind that of other art forms too. If scientists have been doing research into games, it is to examine whether they make you smarter, faster, addicted or more violent.
This is slowly beginning to change, also in Leiden. Games did come into play, but only now they are made explicit. Recently Leiden started to offer a minor in Game Studies, in which games will be approached in a art historical and philosophical way rather than a neurological one. The introductory course has already begun and all 35 spots for the minor are taken. Professor Comparative Philosophy and Political Thought Chris Goto-Jones [Asiascape : the original Dutch text wrongly states that Goto-Jones is professor of Eastern Philosophy], has won a NWO scholarship to research the ‘intersections of visual culture and political philosophy in Japan’. Last month Martin Roth was the first of the PhD students on this project who had to publicly defend his thesis.
‘I believe that gaming culture and the game industry can profit greatly from more academic research into games’, Roth says. ‘Theory-based critique and methodical inquiry offer new perspectives on the medium. I also believe in the innovative force of a research-based scholarly critique, which is not only interested in judging how „good“ or “harmful” a game was but also looks at its content critically and against the background of our lives, our history and ideologies. With my thesis -and with the book I plan to publish sometime soon- I hope to stimulate a dialogue between the humanities and gamers.’
Art, and especially literature and film, enable us to get closer to the other. A man who grew up in the nineties can better imagine what it must have been like to be a Jewish girl in World War II thanks to the diary of Anne Frank. In a similar fashion, art and games should be able to let us imagine something reallydifferent. Roth: ‘The world won’t change when you enact a soldier even if you haven’t been one yourself. The “Otherness” I’m interested in is the kind that hasn’t existed before but seems plausible to imagine. Science Fiction authors have tried to create Otherness in their works, with more or lesser success, and my question is if games might have the potential to do something similar.
The search for new possibilities of “Otherness” is central to my work, because these days we seem to live under the impression that the status quo is the only possibility. It scares me that I am not able to come up with an alternative to the current socioeconomic system. Perhaps videogames are capable of stimulating our thinking of radical alternatives because they put us in situations that don’t fit with our common views, opinions and experiences. In other words, when we are disrupted. Games manage not only let’s us experience new roles and situations remote from our sofas and daily lives, but are also capable of profound disruption on very basic levels of our experience and thought.’
If you mainly play Angry Birds or Candy Crush and don’t recognize these kind of gaming experiences: don’t worry. For his thesis, Roth used a selection of Japanese games that haven’t all gained much popularity in the Netherlands. ‘Japan has a long and rich gaming culture, which has influenced gaming globally worldwide. There is an enormous amount of Super Mariogames but there are also many notable exceptions. Plus, Japanese games are less violence-focused. My personal favorite is the Metal Gear Solid series precisely because it plays with violence in a very ambiguous way. The games in this series feature instances in which violence is directly criticized or in which the tragedies of war are displayed in a critical way. In some cases the characters in the game even directly address the player and confront him/her with the violent actions committed throughout the game, and the fact these were done solely for entertainment’s sake.’
Another example: ‘The time travel game Shadow of Memoriesconfronts the player with a world in which our concept of time does not make sense anymore. This game invites us to question our own understanding of time and its linearity. What does it mean to measure our entire lives in the same time - I worked 8 hours, you worked 10. We spend time although we never seem to really have it, in the sense that it is ours to distribute freely. What kind of world would it be if we did have time? Would it work?
‘This is a rough sketch of my though process while playing the game and reading Paul Virilio’s political philosophy on time and the speed of our society. Games can speak to this, express it in a palpable way. Some games, at least, and and maybe only if you want to be disrupted.
Martin Roth, Disruptive Conflicts in Computopic Space – Japanese SF Videogames as sources of Otherness and Radical Political Imagination.
Date PhD defence: 27 August