Game On: Digital Studies Center Lecture Series Explores Video Games as Cultural Artifacts

By Tom McLaughlin

For Josh Feinbaum, video games began as they did for perhaps many of his peers – as a fun and entertaining means of escape.

Hands with game controllerHaving played his first game at five years old, he recalls toting his GameBoy around everywhere he went, diving into the device as an easy outlet from everyday life.

“I loved the idea of being able to take these interactive experiences with me wherever I went,” says Feinbaum, a junior computer science major at Rutgers University–Camden. “It was a big deal to know that if ever I wasn’t enjoying wherever I was, or didn’t want to pay attention to what was going on, I could take out my GameBoy and go somewhere else.”

As his library of titles grew, the Cherry Hill resident began to think critically about how games are structured and – rather than merely escaping from reality – began to see how life experiences are fertile grounds for creating new gaming concepts.

The aspiring video game designer is now one of the gaming enthusiasts leading discussions for the monthly “Well Played: Walkthroughs and Close Readings of Video Games” series, hosted by the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden.

Josh Feinbaum leads a discussion on Dokapon Kingdom

Josh Feinbaum leads a discussion on Dokapon Kingdom

The series invites participants to play and discuss video games, exploring various aspects such as the games’ historical contexts, and the interactive, social, and emotional facets of the game experiences.

“These discussions are meant to hone in on specific moments, functions, or features in these games that make us pause, think critically, and reflect on our experience,” says Jim Brown, director of the Digital Studies Center.

Brown notes that, while films and novels are regularly viewed as important cultural artifacts, video games are rarely given their proper due.

“Video games are arguably the biggest cultural form of the moment,” says Brown, a Haddon Township resident.

This year’s Well Played series began on Sept. 16 as Feinbaum led an exploration of the cult classic Dokapon Kingdom, a hybrid board game and video game in which participants must complete a mission and accumulate the most gold in order to marry the king’s daughter.

The Rutgers–Camden student notes that, upon beginning the discussion, he handed out video game controllers to the participants, literally and figuratively enabling them to share control of the session and the gaming experience.

feinbaumphoto-copy

Josh Feinbaum

“The participants don’t just watch; they interact,” says Feinbaum, who earned an associate’s degree in art with an emphasis on game design at Camden County College. “I think that’s what really drives the conversation. I could talk about the game all day long, but I may miss something that another player might notice. When everyone is involved, we are all sharing in the discussion and the experience.”

The freeform, all-inclusive atmosphere, he adds, really opens a portal – so to speak – to some really engaging discussions. For instance, he says, when exploring “Dokapon Kingdom,” the talk quickly dovetailed into a conversation about how games can be created and marketed toward younger audiences – “with a childlike, cartoonish quality to them” – but may not be suited for them. Moments later, the group was discussing signs of inherent sexism in the game, such as the stereotypical depictions of female characters – evident in the “sexy face” or the scantily clad female warrior – when customizing characters.

The series will continue on Oct. 21 with an exploration of “BioShock Infinite,” a first-person shooter game taking place in the fictional floating city of Columbia, and a discussion of “Her Story,” a game requiring participants to comb through an archive of video clips in order to solve a missing-person case, on Nov. 18.

“Ultimately, we hope to continue building on these events and drawing in participants from many different disciplines to engage in the discussions,” says Brown, an assistant professor of English.

The free, public sessions are held monthly on Wednesdays from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. in the Digital Studies Center’s ModLab, located in room 215 of the Fine Arts Building on the Rutgers–Camden campus.

For more information on Digital Studies Center activities, including upcoming “Well Played” events, visit digitalstudies.camden.rutgers.edu.

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