What is a game? Does a game need to be “fun” to
be “successful”? Can games be studied as constructs, objects, or spaces of creative research? In this article, I will discuss these concepts while also addressing the notion of players as agents of change/empowerment. By using this framework to bridge the gap between creative and critical expression, we can begin to understand what a game may be, and how a game can be used as a scholarly tool.

The competitive and colonial nature of many games make them ideal candidates for a type of humanities laboratory. Ongoing and emerging scholarly research can create
a set of rules (protocol) for a player/agent to follow as they attempt to reach a desired outcome. While a card or board game may offer a chance to study social or anti-social action between players/agents, the infinitely customizable architecture and atmosphere of a video game offers many unique points of study.

Examples within fiction include Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game in which a young boy is repeatedly asked to defeat a race of aliens in a military simulation game. His expertise in this game ultimately allows him to make sacrificial decisions of “virtual” armies to achieve the final goal of defeating the aliens. He is then told that the battles were all in fact real, and he is then forced to understand he is complicit in the genocide of an alien race. This study of how a gaming environment affects complicity within systems can also be seen in Brenda Romero’s 2009 board game Train. Players are concerned with the most efficient loading of train cargo before a destination is reached; the player with the most efficient loading cargo to the unknown destination wins the game. Upon arrival, the destination is revealed to be a Nazi concentration camp and the cargo are prisoners.

A number of recent video games have been described
as “walking simulators” in which a player can explore or be witness to a created environment without conflict or repercussions. Contrary to the aforementioned colonial
or competitive aspect of gaming, this new environment may offer an invitation for the player to experience a
soft fascination in which their mind can engage and wander freely. This disarming of our competitive or colonial expectations also allows for the exploration of non-linear narrative structures by the player. Different personal goals, alignments, or family histories can be studied by a game creator as they see players from different social or economic backgrounds making unique choices in their explorations.

How can metrics of social communication or success
be measured within or around an existing set of rules for
a game? These issues are central to the conversation surrounding our interaction and changes through the artifice of game versus player, player versus game, player versus player, or even game versus game. There are numerous facets to consider regarding communication within game architecture; I will focus on the aspect of virtual versus real role-playing in gaming. The perceived anonymity of the virtual role-playing experience (massively multiplayer online role-playing-games) can lead to extreme communication behaviors by the players. These behaviors may manifest as an unfiltered verbal attack on another player—as there are often no real-world repercussions to face—or a simple act of luring a player to their death with the promise of a prize or reward. The opposite is also true, where the communication with other individuals sharing your interests can lead to friendships, teamwork, and romance. The anonymity or temporary nature of virtual role-playing-games allows a gamer to perform actions or speech that may be outside of their comfort zone or physical abilities in a similar real-world context.

Emulative or empathetic games offer a pedagogical opportunity to allow students to experience an event or exchange from different perspectives or points in time. Preconceived notions of an event may be radically upset simply by a game modification or “reskinning.” Reskinning modifications are the changing of names, colors, or places without affecting the core mechanic of a game structure. Quest for Bush is a 2006 first-person shooter game which can be seen as an example of this perspective altering modification. The modification was released by the
Global Islamic Media Front (an al-Qaeda propaganda organization) in which the goal is to fight through waves of American soldiers until you fight and kill George W. Bush. The original game is entitled Quest for Saddam (2003), and it is exactly the same experience except the soldiers are Iraqi and the final boss/villain is Saddam Hussein. The U.S. State Department ignored the original release by Jesse Petrilla as entertainment, but immediately labeled Quest for Bush as terrorist propaganda and an al-Qaeda recruiting tool.

The vast abilities or forms of games open the door for engagement in creative problem solving, social scholarship & communication, and immersive learning. As both a player and creator, I am consistently surprised by the malleability or unplanned outcomes which emerge from scholarly games and tools both in and out of my classroom. This article should serve not as a primer but rather a teaser for the opportunities which games can make possible for your own research or pedagogical pursuits.


Romero, Brenda. Train. 2009.

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. TOR, 2017.

Parkin, Simon. “Call of Jihadi Interview.” Eurogamer, 26 Mar. 2008.

Nick Bontrager

This article was written by Nick Bontrager, Assistant Professor of New Media Art for the Spring 2018 Issue of Insights Magazine.