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Video game theory

Liel Leibovtiz interviewed by Claire Richard


     My name is Liel Leibovtiz and, as incredible as it still sounds to me, I am a professor of video games here at NYU. When I was seven, my father bought me the Atari, the very first kind of wooden platform, and he connected it to the TV and something miraculous happened, which is : I held a joystick in my hand and I could make the objects on the TV move! Which was this great moment of revelation for me, because prior to that moment, if you wanted to watch TV you would sit back on the couch and you were here, and the TV was there and never the two should meet. But all of a sudden there was a magic stick in your hand which by moving, manipulated the images on the screen. And as a seven years old kid, this was the most marvelous thing in the world. It was a phenomenon that I did not quite understand but that I’ve happily spent a lifetime studying.

     My practice was religious : I have been playing video games for probably 2 to 3 hours a day probably since that moment since I first laid hands on that joystick. So the answer is yes : I’ve been from Atari to sega to Nintendo to Play Station to X Boxes… I have been and remain, first and foremost, above all, a committed gamer. What I wanted to do with my PhD and this may sound incredible but : I wanted to answer the same question that I had when I was seven, which is : what is it about video games that makes them so appealing, and that also makes them so different than any other medium we know? Because I sensed, and I think every gamer immediately senses it, that the activity of playing video game is really, really different. You sit on the same couch and you stare at the same TV screen but it’s nothing like watching TV. It’s a completely different activity that arouses you and forms you and stimulates you, in totally different ways.

     The medium has only been around for a few decades. And as soon as it arrived people started asking all sorts of questions : does it lead to violence? how does it represent women? How does it represent minorities? A bunch of questions which I think are very pertinent, but not at all specific to this medium. People asked the same questions about radio when it arrived, about television when it arrived… These are not new and not particularly specific questions to this medium. TV requires you to interpret, to find meaning, to reject meaning, to make up new meaning, to negociate. Video games aren’t like that. Video games require you to do something else. You turn on a video game, and immediately you exist in three separate forms : you are that self on the couch, sitting in the physical space, watching the TV, holding the remote in your hand, you are the avatar on the screen, the character which you control and manipulate, and you’re a sort of third entity, an amalgamation of the two of you, of real and unreal, person and avatar, of gamer and character. And when that happens, I argue that (and I have some, but by no means conclusive research with which to argue this point) you are no longer a subject. You are no longer a critical distant being sitting there, and saying to herself «  I need to interpret this ». you don’t interpret. You don’t view. You’re not a spectator. You are in the world! You do, you move, you jump, you press buttons, you are in this physical space, you experience the world through being, not through seeing. And it’s an entire and really radical difference.

     I discovered Martin Heidegger. And the reason why he’s incredibly relevant to video games player is that Martin Heidegger says something very radical. Martin Heidegger says: up until now, we have been busy looking at the world like Rene Descartes told us we should be looking at the world, the famous Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am. To Descartes, the world goes on in your mind. And that, says Heidegger, is a joke! Human beings exist in the world, says Heidegger, in a different way. They exist in the world as beings, as actors. They exist because they do! They perform functions, they interact with other objects. They interact not as some sort of intellectual pursuit, they don’t understand by thinking – they understand by doing. And once I got into that mindset, I realized : Wow, this is exactly the difference between video games and TV! You don’t understand by seeing. You understand by doing, you understand by being. You embody the game. You know, people have this image of the video game player as this fat slob, sitting on the couch in his underwear, eating cheetos, and playing video games for hours and drinking fatty sodas… But video games are incredibly physical! they involve your entire body as you play. You know if you’re playing a car racing game, and if you veer left, your whole body goes left, and you’re tense, and your thumbs move and your brain… everything is focused towards this goal.

     So once I had this intellectual framework of Heidegger, I really started doing all kinds of experimentation. I did phenomenology, which is a form of research in which you play a lot and you observe what happens as you play, and you observe others as they play. I did a lot of interviews with gamers, with game designers, with other game scholars to see what they thought about gaming. And I did a lot of theoretical reading of a lot of people like Heidegger, and try see how that might fit into an understanding of the new medium.

     The field of video games studies is still busy being born. There are currently only a handful of us people who are currently doing video work exclusively, and intellectually – as opposed to video games design or video game programming. I think that the last five years have been isntumental in seeing more and more universities offering more and more classes pertaining to video games, and more and more young scholars becoming more and more interested in the field, conferences rising devoted solely to video games – as opposed to “video games and other things”, or “video games as other things”. And I think what has brought on this tremendous change is, quite simply, the avalanche, the increasing, almost stratospheric popularity of the medium.

     Video games are busy shattering all sorts of records, in a very meaningful way. More and more young people spend more and more time with video games than increasingly any other medium. They’re selling an ungodly amount of titles and machines. The machines are getting not only better in terms of graphics and processors, but also more promising in playing in interaction… They are a significant medium. They are becoming more and more significant. Which is a wonderful thing and calls for – and is receiving – growing interest from scholars. If you had to teach video game theory in high schools or colleges, you’d still have a pretty difficult time coming up with a solid reading list. I would like to recommend a few titles.

     First of all, there is a Dutch theoretician, Johann Huizinga, who wrote a book called Homo Ludens, in I believe the 1930s – it might have been 1940s. It is a fundamental book to understanding the whole idea behind play, and how incredibly central it has been to the development of humanity and human culture, politics, religion, since the dawn of mankind. That I think is a seminal book for anyone who’s seriously interested in play. Heidegger is very interesting because he is the philosopher of being, the philosopher of doing… Alexander Galloway, who’s my colleague at this department and Jesper Juul, who’s at the Game Center over at Tisch School of the arts, are both very smart video games theoreticians, who really have done a great deal to really help us think about games as its own intellectual framework. But I think the most important thing, really, if you really want to understand video games – and this is a recommendation to all the parents and educators who might be watching us right now – is to play a lot of games. there is a tremendous value in game playing. You learn not only obvious things, such as pattern recognition, finding yourself in time and space… But it is a tremendous way for ordering a world, ordering a mind, ordering a way of thinking, and I do wish more adults would take this medium more seriously, not necessarily as an educational means but a means through which to engage younger people in play, which is an ever important element of our society.

     Can you be a video game theorist if you’re not a gamer? I think that, not only can you, but I actually am enclined to believe you would be a better game scholar. One of my greatest challenges was to completely abandon all the bad habits I picked up as a gamer. Some things were so obvious to me! Learning to rewatch this world, to observe this world again, as Proust would say, through a brand new set of eyes, is a very big challenge. And I think I spent more time unlearning about video games than I spent learning about them, because I wanted to make sure that I was not taking anything for granted.

     To ask someone like me what are your favorite games is such a deeply unfair question! (laughs) If I had to, I’d say : play a game called Portal 2. Portal 2 is a game that subverts everything you know about time and space. It is a game that essentially requires you to, as the tagline of the game says, to think with portals. What you do is: you’re in the space, and you have all kinds of traps and puzzles. And you get from one place to another by putting portals in walls and ceilings and floors and sliding from one dimension, one surface to another. It requires you to think much more astutely, very sharply. And when yo do so, you become much more aware to the field of possibility that the world is offering you. It also is incredibly well written, tremendously well acted… It is a real masterpiece of the genre. And I will never tire of watching it.

Pour citer ces ressources :

Liel Leibovtiz, Claire Richard. 12/2012. "Video game theory".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 12 septembre 2016.
Consulté le 25 novembre 2017.
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Mise à jour le 12 septembre 2016
Créé le 5 décembre 2012
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues