September 7, 2004

Academic vs. Developer, They Will Fight Eternally

by Nick Montfort · , 11:51 am

Andrew pointed to a followup conversation about academia vs. industry on GameGirlAdvance, following up on the GameSpot article on the topic. In GGA comments, gman wrote: “I don’t agree that academics can teach us ‘how we can make them [games] better’. I don’t think they’ve done it in any other entertainment.” Mark replied, “Without being too agressive, I’d say that your opinion IS uninformed.”

I have to side with Mark on this one. Looking at interactive fiction and the novel particularly, I’ve tried to explore the relationship of academia to “industry” (or, “the creative process”) below…

Here are a few of the academics involved with interactive fiction who I can think of right off — I’m considering an “academic” to be someone who was affiliated with a university as a student, researcher, or professor when they did the work mentioned:

The modern video game (I consider Spacewar to be the first example, as I think is typical) was invented by academics (Steve Russell et al. at MIT). A host of other early computer games were developed at universities, including the first first-person shooter, Maze. BASIC, which helped to make game programming widespread in the 1980s and which I think had a huge influence on computer gaming by making programming more popular, was also university-developed.

As far as the novel is concerned: The academics C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have already been mentioned at GGA; Alain Robbe-Grillet and Umberto Eco are two other novelists, of many, who are worth noting, and whose own academic work has informed their development of, perhaps reinvention of, the novel.

Lists like these both overstate and understate the role of academic thought in the creative process, though. They overstate it because the academic context (availability of computers, time to program them, etc.) made the most difference in enabling some early works. It wasn’t that a long program of official interactive fiction study led to Zork being written at MIT — still, even in that case, Winograd’s work on SHRDLU was probably an influence on Zork‘s development. At any rate, such lists also understate the influence of academic thought, because you don’t have to be at a university for such thought and discussion to make a difference to your work.

For instance, Don DeLillo is not an academic. As far as I know, he has never taught at a college or university, and the impression I get from reading interviews with him (they aren’t as rare as is reputed) is that he actively disliked his years as an undergraduate at Fordham. Yet it’s not unusual for DeLillo to reply to a question, as in this interview, like so:

I would like to start off from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). He suggested that the more a picture is being reproduced, by photography for instance, the more the ‘aura’ of the work of art whithers.

Someone who characterizes DeLillo as having no relationship to academic thought — or as being only a satirist of the academic (as if that was what White Noise is about) — is going to have a hard time appreciating and understanding his work. I don’t know to answer to “does Steven Speilberg use academics when making movies?” (a question gman asked on GameGirlAdvance) but Don DeLillo certainly uses academics when making books. In interactive fiction, Adam Cadre is a good example of a non-academic, albeit one who works as a teacher of college prep courses, who is informed by academic thought.

I think game developers are quite influenced by academic thinking about video games, whether they know it or not, and that this influence arrives through many channels, some of which have been pointed out in the Game Girl Advance discussion. Developers who think really deeply about issues in design often know where the currents of thought that they are following began.

Neither academic thinking nor creative development occurs independently, of course: even academics looking back at historical games, novels, films, etc. are influenced in their thinking by the things that are being created today. But academia can provide the space and time to consider a broad range of work, not just what is marketable at this moment, and to develop new ways of thinking about video and computer games that the market would not come up with on its own. Sometimes sitting apart in that space for such a time makes it seem that you’re in an ivory tower, but this type of thinking is necessary. Some of it may eventually lead to profits in the marketplace; some of it may not, but could still help to shape our culture and the way we understand it.