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The Harvard Interactive Media Group explores the future of video games

Caffeine isn’t the only thing keeping Harvard students wired these days.

The newly-formed Harvard Interactive Media Group (HIMG) is trying to spur a new way for undergrads to connect to each other, largely by connecting them to the machines they love. But for a club comprised mostly of hardcore video gamers, its members define “interactive media” in a strikingly humanistic way.

“Take a Rothko painting like ‘Green on Maroon,’” says Benjamin S. Decker ’08, founder of HIMG. In the way a painting is seen and interpreted, it’s not all about the artist, he says. “It’s created by the viewer, too. We see that as interactive media.”

“Video games are expanding what it means to be art,” says Alexander “Zander” N. Li ‘08, co-editor-in-chief of the Harvard Interactive Media Review (a division of HIMG), and who is also a Crimson editor. “They are very close to film in terms of their aesthetic aspect,” he says.

In exploring the relationship between gaming and art, HIMG is part of a larger trend among Harvard students—the search for a way to healthily incorporate increasingly addictive and complex video and computer games into their lives. The pursuit may seem trivial to non-gamers, but for a growing section of the Harvard population, it’s an incredibly difficult balancing act.

DIGITAL EVOLUTION

Li agrees that the term “interactive media” covers a wide spectrum, but he also notes that the Review’s interest rests primarily on the screen.

“Interactive media is everything from board games to video games,” he says. “But we’re interested in how technology plays into it.” By which he means video games.

“Interactive media is a powerful combination of games, narratives, communication tools, and modeling,” says Decker.

While this might conjure memories of one’s youth, sprawled on the basement floor, collecting Donkey Kong’s bananas or arguing over who gets to race as Mario, don’t let the term “video games” mislead. Video games are more than just pixels on a screen, touching not only the art community but also a number of academic fields. This growing intertwining is the crux of the HIMG’s initiative.

“When interactive media first came out, people would go to arcades and it was a social experience,” says Decker. “Then it receded into a geek stereotype, and now it’s [about] meeting real life.”

A USER’S MANUAL

“We had humble beginnings,” says Li. “We were looking for more people to play ‘Civilization IV,’” a popular computer game. “We were sure more people played on campus, but didn’t know how to find them.”

“We realized just bringing three or four more people together made it more fun,” says Decker.

The group, which was conceived last May, was approved by the administration in October, according to Li.

The mission statement of the HIMG states that its purpose is “To bring together Harvard students and professors with members of academic and professional communities beyond to explore the form and impact of interactive media.”

With an emphasis on video games, the group attempts to connect the Harvard gaming community, the growing community of “game studies,” and the professional developer community.

HIMG itself consists of four branches: the Harvard Gaming Initiative (HGI), the Harvard Interactive Media (HIM) Colloquium, the Harvard Interactive Media Development Group, and the Harvard Interactive Media Review, all of which relate to the development, study, and enjoyment of interactive media.

DREAMS OF PIXEL GRANDEUR

The centerpiece of the HIMG, though, is the Review. “There’s nothing like the Review right now,” says Li. “We’d like this to be the premier publication in interactive media in 10 or 20 years.”

Featuring articles by students, professors from Harvard and other universities, and prominent figures in the gaming industry and other relevant fields, the first issue is scheduled to appear in late April. With a projected circulation of about 5,000, the Review aims to bring interactive media to a wider audience.

“The focus of the Review is academic,” stresses Li. “It’s our way of connecting with the broader world. It examines questions like, ‘How does an in-game economy relate to a real-world economy?’ and ‘Can a virtual environment emulate a real world environment?’”

Though it will center on gaming, don’t expect the Review to provide a shopping list.

According to Li, the first issue of the review will not review games at all, but rather address them in a more scholarly light, covering topics such as games and learning, the concept of value in virtual worlds, and the political and civic impact of video games.

GAMING IN THE LABORATORY

A number of professors have agreed to contribute to the Review, touting the positive benefits and principles that can be gained from video games and the example that they set.

“It is important to realize that video game playing can have many effects on psychological processes, depending on the type of games people play,” writes Assistant Professor of Psychology Yuhong Jiang in an email.

Although her work on visual cognition does not focus on video games, Jiang, who has committed to contribute to the Review, is interested in studies that have shown people who were trained to play video games develop a greater ability to ignore visual distractions.

This poses the possibility of video games as tools of cognitive training.

“Research has partly convinced me, a natural skeptic of this kind of research, that action video game playing can improve performance on some cognitive tasks,” she writes, though she has not been able to duplicate the results in her laboratory.

“Why such improvement is seen, for how long it lasts, and how generalizable it is to everyday cognition, are questions that remain to be answered.”

James P. Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of such books as “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” and “Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul,” has contributed an article for the first issue of the Review. He believes that we can learn a tremendous amount from video games.

“Good commercial video games incorporate good learning techniques,” says Gee. Video games put you in a world in which you have to solve problems.”

Creating solutions also leads to a greater sense of authority in the player.

“Video games give people a sense of control or agency,” explains Gee. “Video games have the capacity to give people a sense of power or control. And video games marry learning to pleasure.”

UNHEALTHY HABITS?

In regards to the negative effects that video games can have in terms of violence and other factors, Gee doesn’t believe that it is possible to pass a definite judgment on them.

“Video games are a technology, and a technology is not good or bad by itself,” he says. “Books are interactive media too, and look at the amount of killing and violence that the Bible has caused. But the Bible is neither good nor bad.”

So why hesitate to spend time with your controller? Well, perhaps the merit of moderation applies. Can there be too much of a good thing?

Though video games provide seemingly positive effects such as community, enjoyment, and even emotional depth, there are instances when a good time can get out of hand.

“At least 90 percent of the people that play these games have no problems,” says Dr. Maressa H. Orzack, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Computer Addiction Study Center. “But there is this population that has problems. Take World of Warcraft,” aka WoW—a wildly popular online roleplaying game. “About 80.5 million people play it, so even if you take 10 to 15 percent of this percent of this population, millions. They’re the ones in trouble. Something like 40 percent of people that play WoW call themselves addicted.”

Like any addiction, video game addiction is serious. Mood disorders, such as bipolarity, depression, anxiety disorders—including obsessive-compulsive behavior, and social phobias can develop.

“They lose sleep. They flunk out of school,” says Orzack. “They often gain weight because they are not exercising. They neglect their personal needs. They avoid making social plans.”

MORE FUN AND GAMES?

The Review will explore serious issues relating to video games such as these, but for the 100 plus gamers that participated last month in the HIMG’s “Multiplay 01,” Harvard’s first official gaming event, the atmosphere was far from reclusive. Players were lured with food and prizes, but ultimately it was the sense of community that proved to be the biggest draw, something which the HIMG’s gaming initiative is meant to foster.

Orzack agrees that despite possible negative effects, gaming is a positive activity. “There are people who can’t handle it,” says Orzack. “But I don’t think [video games] are a bad idea for most people.”

While psychological, educational and social facets of video games are being addressed in scholarly contexts, the question of the visual value of video games remains controversial.

“Since aesthetic activity goes into making video games one cannot exclude them from questions of art,” says David N. Rodowick, a professor in Harvard’s department of Visual and Envrionmental Studies. “But it will force philosophers like me to change what our conception of art is.”