SXSW Panel Recap: Gaming Goes Academic

Drew Davidson on analyzing and valuing video games

Drew Davidson’s thesis is hardly new — that “video games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis” piggy-backs on work by fellow academics and game designers such as Janet Murray and Jesper Juul. Novel, though, was the means by which Davidson sought to affirm that notion.

Davidson, who is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of its Entertainment Technology Center, warned at the start of his presentation, “This is the first time I’ll be playing live from my phone....” Happily, his worry was unfounded. Throughout Well Played: On Video Games, Value, and Meaning Davidson played live two indie games (either free or inexpensive), the Escher-esque Monument Valley (ustwo) and Crossy Road (Hipster Whale), the latter being the Minecraft-y kissin’-cousin of Frogger. [An aside: Monument Valley was nominated for mobile game of the year at the SXSW Gaming Awards]. 

Monument Valley

In playing live Davidson effectively proved that deconstructive and analytic acumen, much like gaming literacy, is predicated on putting in the hours/pounding those buttons. Davidson’s method is structurally similar to those found in film studies classrooms, where professors show students an illustrative short clip (here’s how the Kuleshov Effect works, kids!). Unlike a film clip, which remains essentially unchanged each time it’s shown, a video game is a piece of interactive design. Human error, albeit often planned by Davidson to illustrate a mechanic, is on full display.

Seeing the chicken protagonist of Crossy Road die over and over again offers opportunities for “deep dives into games – looking at how they’re designed and developed,” something that just viewing game trailers could never match. At the end of his presentation Davidson wanted to know if these two games were “successful” on their own terms (his conclusion: yup), but set loose on the analytic trail we were left wondering if Crossy Road was a snarky Post-Marxist commentary on infrastructure, attention, and capital, or what? Luckily, Davidson puts out a biannual open-source journal, so…

Well Played: On Video Games, Value, and Meaning

Saturday, March 14, Hyatt Regency

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Gaming, SXSW, SXSW Interactive 2015, Drew Davidson

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