Videogame collection supports scholarly study

After several months of fascinating discussion about emerging interest in the academic study of videogames, I am overjoyed that the University of Chicago Library has acquired its first videogame collection, and that these games will soon be available for borrowing from the Mansueto Library. Why, some might ask, should a university library add videogames to its holdings? Moreover, why is the popular digital game form important? And, finally, what might the University of Chicago community gain from this new collection?

These averages are suggestive but some games inspire even more extreme forms of spending and gameplay. For example, in late 2010, the game Call of Duty: Black Ops earned $650 million in worldwide sales in just five days — a huge yield even by comparison to the top-grossing film in a comparable five-day time span, The Dark Knight, which earned about $200 million. Perhaps the more startling fact, reported by Black Ops creator Activision, was that the over 20 million early adopters of the game logged more than 600 million hours of collective gameplay in the first 45 days after release — a play time that adds up to an astonishing 68,000 years.

That videogames are extremely profitable and a popular form of entertainment that touches millions of people in the early 21st century suggests that they are and will continue to be of interest to social science fields such as psychology, economics, anthropology, and education. However, these reasons alone perhaps do not offer a compelling enough reason for assembling a historical collection of videogames at a top university library.

There has already been a great deal of excitement surrounding videogames as an area of serious scholarly study at the University of Chicago. In 2010, Professor John Reppy taught an upper-level Game Construction course in the Computer Science department that approached software engineering through computer games. In 2011, along with Melissa Gilliam (Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics and Chief of the Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research), I started the Game Changer Chicago initiative to oversee projects related to serious games and health education.

In the winter quarter of 2012, I also taught a graduate-level, humanities-oriented course called Critical Videogame Studies that attracted 23 students. These participants came from a wide range of disciplines including English, cinema and media studies, anthropology, economics, history, and law. These students were interested in applying various methodologies and asking different kinds of questions about our shared topic. Over the course of the quarter, our close readings of games attended to their aesthetics, interface designs, narratives, gameplay procedures, player interactions, cultural dimensions, economic implications, and technical attributes. We discussed the historical development of videogames from Steve Russell’s early 1960s game Spacewar! to 21st century massively multiplayer online games such as Minecraft. We explored numerous videogame genres, including first-person shooters, music performance games, serious and educational games, and independent art games. We read texts by game theorists including Ian Bogost, Roger Caillois, Nick Dyer-Witheford, James Paul Gee, Johan Huizinga, Jane McGonigal, Marshall McLuhan, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman.

The intellectual energy surrounding videogames that I observed in this recent course has extended far beyond the classroom at the University of Chicago. Beginning in 2010, we had our first informal gameplay and discussion nights that included undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Building on these sessions, a dedicated group of participants started a vibrant student group called the Ludic Union for the Investigation of Gaming Interfaces (LUIGI) that encourages the study, design, and development of videogames and transmedia games at the university. Several undergraduate and graduate students in this group are working on scholarly and creative projects about videogames and are planning to teach future courses on different topics in the field.

The videogame collection at the University of Chicago Library is intended to support both teaching and research about videogames. The first version of this collection, which we hope to expand even more in the coming years, already includes a range of games released between 1977 and 2012. There are games for consoles that include the Atari VCS, NES, SNES, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Certain consoles (including the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and Xbox 360), which have been both donated and purchased, are also available to be checked out at the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) equipment cage in the recently opened Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Even as the collection is currently focused on console games, we hope to expand it to other areas, such as computer and mobile games, in future years. The games included in the present collection have been carefully selected to cover a range of genres, historical developments, platforms, and design innovations.


Selected Games

As part of an invitation to explore this collection together, I have asked members of the LUIGI student group (who have played an active and vital role in shaping the collection) to offer a brief introduction to some of the games that they find most significant from a historical and artistic standpoint. While many of the videogames we find most compelling had to be left off of this list, this selection of games purchased by the Library offers a taste of what our growing collection has to offer.

Adventure (Atari VCS, 1979, Atari Inc.)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies


Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1985, Nintendo Creative Department)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Virtua Fighter 2 (Sega Saturn, 1995, Sega-AM2)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Earthbound (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1995, Ape and HAL Laboratory)
Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago faculty, English

Resident Evil (PlayStation, 1996, Capcom)
Clint Froehlich, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998, Nintendo EAD)
Nicholas Cassleman, University of Chicago undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (Game Design)

Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast, 1999, Sega AM2)
Lyndsey Moulds, University of Chicago undergraduate, English

Super Smash Bros. Melee (Nintendo GameCube, 2001, HAL Laboratory)
Marley-Vincent Lindsey,
University of Chicago undergraduate, History

Building on the original Super Smash Brothers (1999) for the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee (2001) is the best-selling videogame for the Nintendo GameCube. It provides a universe in which major characters and stories from all of Nintendo’s consoles collide. The combat system is different from other fighter games because more damage does not guarantee victory — players must instead force opposing characters offstage to win. Melee provides a challenge, both through game design and exploits (or parts of code that had unintended consequences). For example, “wave dashing” is a technique through which the player can continue moving while being viewed by the game engine as standing still, thereby allowing for attacks to continue. Such exploits were quickly adopted by professional players and implemented in tournaments. The game was picked up by Major League Gaming in 2005, and was also featured in prominent competitive game tournaments from 2003 to 2007. It is one of the rare instances in which competition thrived even after the release of a game’s sequel (Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Nintendo Wii in 2008).

PsychoNauts (Xbox, 2005, Double Fine Productions)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Shadow of the Colossus (PlayStation 2, 2005, Team ICO)
Chris Carloy, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Shadow of the Colossus, like many adventure games before it, is built on familiar tropes: as the hero, take your sword, and your horse, and go kill giants in order to revive a lifeless damsel. Remarkably, by stripping the game of all but these elements and by pushing the scale of settings and monsters to unimaginable heights, the makers of Shadow of the Colossus created a game that was one part meditation on solitude, the sublime, death, and the moral ambiguity of violence, and one part ecstatic, breathtaking hero’s quest. In Shadow of the Colossus, giants’ bodies are living geographies — and the player scales their heights only to bring them crumbling to the ground.

BioShock (Xbox 360, 2007, 2K Games)
Nicholas Cassleman, University of Chicago undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (Game Design)

Metroid Prime Trilogy (Wii, 2009, Retro Studios Nintendo)
Ian Jones, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies

Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3, 2010, Quantic Dream)
Kalisha Cornett, University of Chicago graduate student, Cinema and Media Studies


Videogame ShowcaseJune 1, 3-9 p.m.At the Logan Center

We also invite you to attend an upcoming showcase of select titles representing the breadth of the University’s holdings on June 1 from 3-9 p.m. at the Logan Center. This showcase has been designed to highlight both what videogames have drawn from other media and what makes them uniquely worthy of study and preservation.  The six-hour event will be broken into half-hour sessions on a number of themes. Come to play or watch, for a single session or the full six hours, and learn about games and their study at the University of Chicago.  For a complete schedule, visit the LUIGI blog.