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Games - Past, present, and future of a young medium

DIGAREC – the Digital Games Research Center at the University of Potsdam. Photo: Karla Fritze.
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DIGAREC – the Digital Games Research Center at the University of Potsdam. Photo: Karla Fritze.

In the course of its short history, computer gaming has already undergone rapid changes. And for exactly this reason, it poses a challenge to researchers of various disciplines. What are its potentials? As an entertainment medium, how does it relate to high culture? How does it influence gamers? The University of Potsdam takes a pioneering role in researching this genre. Ten years ago, the Digital Games Research Center (DIGAREC) was set up here, with the largest computer games collection of any German university. Currently, this archive is being merged with other stocks to create the largest collection of computer games in the world. For this occasion, Jana Scholz met up with three researchers who focus on this medium in both their research and teaching: computer games researcher Dr. Sebastian Möring, Professor of Cultural Studies Dr. Nathanael Riemer, and media culture historian Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians.

What exactly is a computer game?

Möring: There are many definitions. To name a simple one: A computer game is a game that requires a computer to be played. In this sense, the Prussian War Game from the 19th century may have been a computer game as well, since it required a third person to calculate the moves. A computer is a calculating machine, and this game needed a “calculator”. In any case, the Prussian War Game is very important for the history of the medium, as it is also the predecessor of analogue and digital role play games. Besides, it is also based on chess, which is, of course, much older. This takes us back to the early days of board games – which may have been computer games right from the outset. 

And when do we speak of video games?

Möring: The main task of a computer is to calculate. The output of these calculations need not necessarily be visual. A video game, however, aims at visibility. In Germany, they used to be called screen games. One of the earliest examples is “Tennis for two” from 1958: The Brookhaven National Laboratory, which mainly did research for the US-American Department of Energy, developed the game for its Open House.

Christians: For a very long time, we equated the computer with the screen and told children to keep their hands off it. Today, we deal with it in exactly this way: The touchscreen has completely changed the setting between computer unit and interface. Of course, this also affects the gaming world. 

Riemer: Maybe one day we won’t even need the screen surface any more. Computers could be integrated into the human body so that aspects of the game become part of the body. To a certain extent, the smartphone has become such an extension now.

What is the economic importance of computer games?

Christians: Their economic importance is tremendous; growth rates are incredible. The entertainment industry generates its largest sales with games. Soon, computer (games) will no longer depend on literacy, because personal language assistants are taking verbal commands. This development enlarges the market by billions of participants.

Riemer: The movie industry is still dominant, but this will continue to change in the next 20 years. Both media realms are already benefitting from each other. Video games take up dramaturgical means from movie production, such as in “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice”, while the movie industry will think about how to integrate game-like elements. 

Möring: Ebooks, social networks, learning platforms – these are all effects of a larger development. We have to put computer games in context, both historically and in their simultaneity, that is in interaction with various other media. Because, unlike 20 years ago, games are no longer identified with material objects. Today, a DVD may be required to upload the first set of data onto a computer, if at all, but then the players connect to the Internet, and the first update starts. Every game has interfaces with social networks, so photos are sent directly to Facebook or Instagram. There are even artists who see in-game-photography as their primary field of creative work. Games, then, are just a hub in a network of numerous media.

Christians: My eleven-year-old son watches other gamers play on YouTube. They are his heroes, and he reads the comments on the videos. It would seem strange to me to watch other people reading for hours, but the analysis of the phenomenon is quite interesting.

Riemer: Perhaps it’s a form of journalism. And also some sort of performance. 

Christians: Yes, and it’s really exciting to integrate such formats into university teaching. You learn about formats: Is this a documentation, a commentary, or a reportage? There is a lot of learning potential in it. But the education system has to formulate goals to turn computer games into a learning environment. And we as cultural scientists should strive for comparability with other media phenomena to learn something about computer games. 

What is the role of computer games in media history?

Christians: As early as in the 18th century, high culture had to face the pressure of the entertainment industry environment when English novels became best sellers in Europe. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe, for instance, was translated into 50 languages within 20 years. When the culture of reading changed, a new educational idea emerged. Readers were now to immerse themselves in the action and visualize scenes, heroes, and landscapes. Today, computer games provide such simulations, and it’s comparatively easy to immerse yourself in them. For suspense to develop in a novel, I have to be a good and fast reader. In computer games, this is not necessary: The entrance barrier is lower.

Möring: I am not sure whether computer games are easily accessible. These days, they have games for real enthusiasts again. Last year, I analyzed two winning games of the German Computer Game Prize 2015. In “Lords of the Fallen” – a fantasy game set in the middle ages – I had to beat knights, dragons, and the living dead. I did not get beyond the first level (laughs). For someone with an average reaction time, the game was challenging and required training. Internationally, this is even referred to as gaming literacy, some sort of “alphabetization”. So how accessible a game is varies greatly.

Why should games serve educational purposes at all?

Christians: When entertainment industry and educational system move apart, this is disadvantageous for a society. Massive financial investments go into technical entertainment. Here, technologies are developed that are also of interest for military purposes. Entertainment standards embody – openly or covertly – technology and consciousness standards. Conversely, the educational system can train the reflection of these entertainment environments. But distance matters here: “Playful learning” as a feel-good catch phrase guaranteeing the success of educational processes is certainly not enough. “The playful” is changing historically and technically, and its structures, history, formats, alliances, and effects need to be understood and learned.

Riemer: At last year’s Gamescom, Angela Merkel described computer games as a cultural asset, which would make them a natural part of the educational canon. University students have also demanded the integration of games into the educational system. They have proposed genuine desiderata to us. After all, gaming can also prepare you for life. Many adolescents see role games as an opportunity to try out things without the harsh consequences of “real” life. In “Life Is Strange”, for instance, gamers face up to the issue of bullying at school.

Möring: Perhaps the question is not only how to make computer games compatible with education, but also what, by implication, computer games do to the subjects of education: the students. What influence do they have on what we refer to as education? 

What do we know about the effects of computer games?

Möring: As computer games researchers we can investigate social or cultural effects. For instance, gaming trains economic behavior. But most people think about gaming from a psychological perspective and focus on the risk of addiction. A colleague of mine, Rune Nielsen from IT University of Copenhagen, analyzed studies on the addictive potential of computer games and found paradoxes and shortcomings in their premises. He was thus able to show that we still do not have reliable knowledge as to whether computer games are addictive or not.

Christians: In the 18th century, there was a lot of debate as to whether novels are harmful, lead to isolation, and make their readers drift off into fantasy worlds. And what do we have now? Today, the modern subject is expected to be emotional, authentic, and self-reflective. All these attributes were developed through those novels. So we simply can’t know what subject will be created by a culture in which computer games have been around for only 20 years.

Riemer: High culture reacts to popular culture, as always. Not much has changed since the heyday of the novel. At that time, the reading craze was also seen through the lense of addiction: Reading leads to physical and mental degeneration, it was argued. This accusation repeats itself in cultural history – no matter whether it is about computer games, movies, TV, or music styles. The debate needs to be objectified.

Christians: True enough, media use is always pathologized even though, or precisely because, we don’t know what comes of it. Society is not very good at coming to terms with open ends. 

Could it be that prejudices are mainly expressed by those who are not themselves gamers?

Möring: There is a certain inclination to be prejudiced if you are not an active gamer. It is conceivable that older researchers don’t play computer games since they did not grow up with the medium. They display a general skepticism towards the medium which also shows in their research. – And it might just as well be that young researchers who grew up with the medium depict computer games in an unrealistically positive light. However, at the end of the day it is not a matter of age, but of scientific integrity what research findings emerge.

Riemer: The constant critiques of computer gaming started to bore me, and I asked myself which games appealed to me personally. Over the past decade, they have become more sophisticated, not only technically, but also at the narrative level. Computer games are often some sort of social metacommentary. The third-person shooter “Spec Ops: The Line”, for instance, is truly pacifist, an anti-war game. The ego-shooter “BioShock Infinite” was a real eye opener to me: I did not pick up on the shooter elements so much as on the dominant range of religious motives.

What attitude towards religion do such games develop?

Riemer: The subtextual message in “Nier: Automata” is: “Religion is weird” (laughs). As a gamer you may get the impression that religion is a problematic field. With my students, I analyze such attitudes without judging them. These seminars are very lively, with multilayered perceptions and a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the students.

Mr. Möring, you researched metaphors in computer games…

Möring: I analyzed independent games described by their developers as metaphors: for life, death, or love. Even very simple, abstract games such as “Tetris” can provide an existential basic structure. After all, the gamers’ task is to make sure that they can continue playing. The only goal of “Tetris” is to be able to continue playing it. That’s all it is about.

Do you play computer games?

Riemer: I can’t, I have motoric problems even in very simple jump ’n’ run games like “Super Mario”. But what I can do is watch the very same game – played by various game journalists – on YouTube many times. And especially the good games published in recent years have turned out to be a temporal challenge. It takes time to play through the 25 possible endings of “Nier: Automata”.

Christians: I also think that there are more ways to analyze games than to play them – just like you have excellent coaches in international soccer who cannot keep the ball off the ground for ten seconds. As a researcher, I find this distance quite beneficial. Sometimes “experienced practitioners” are actually the least suited people.

Möring: In the community, researchers are accused of lacking gaming credibility if they don’t play themselves. My personal impression is that computer games researchers who are parents have little time to play. That is why their research is often inspired by observing what their children are doing.

One last question: What will the computer game of the future look like?

Riemer: A virtual reality without screen. 

Christians: So data glasses are the future? 

Riemer: Or maybe such glasses will no longer be needed some day?

Möring: Even now, we have reached the point where the various layers of computer games and social life interlock. Already today, Facebook is like a computer game with one’s own social relations. In the future, these structures might be integrated in our everyday lives in such a way that we are unable to differentiate between them. The boundary between game and reality is dissolving. Whether this is a desirable future, I can’t tell.

Interview: Jana Scholz


The Prussian War Game was a strategy game that used terrain simulation to train Prussian officers. With the help of various pre-cast terrain types, figurines, and weapons, two players simulated combat situations. A third player calculated troop strengths or determined positions. In a first-person shooter, gamers use weapons to fight opponents from a first-person perspective. By contrast, in a third-person shooter, the player’s character is visible on-screen. In open-world games, players can roam freely and have many opportunities to choose from, whereas in platform games the player moves by running and jumping between platforms. Indie games are games developed by independent designers, and for financial reasons they are often only published in digital form.

DIGAREC – the Digital Games Research Center at the University of Potsdam unites researchers of the University of Potsdam, Fachhochschule Potsdam (University of Applied Sciences), University of the Arts Berlin, btk University of Applied Sciences, and the Computer Games Museum Berlin. Founded in 2007, DIGAREC’s collection of computer games is the largest of its kind at any German university. Since 2016, this collection is being merged with stocks of the Computer Games Museum, the German Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK), and the Central and Regional Library Berlin (ZLB), under the coordination of the Foundation Digital Gaming Culture (Stiftung Digitale Spielekultur). It is to become the largest collection of computer games in the world, funded by the German Bundestag.

The Researchers

Dr. Sebastian Möring studied cultural studies, European media science, and game studies. He is an academic staff member in the degree course European media science, and coordinator at the Digital Games Research Center (DIGAREC) at the University of Potsdam.

Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians studied German philology, philosophy, pedagogics, and Dutch studies. Since 2008, he has been Professor of Media Culture History at the University of Potsdam.

Prof. Dr. Nathanael Riemer studied Jewish studies, German philology, history, and philosophy. Since 2013, he has been Junior Professor of Jewish Studies with a Focus on Interreligious Encounters at the University of Potsdam.

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde