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Cathy Li

The Arts of Video Games that Conduce Digital Humanities


The emergence of digital humanities as a practice of using computational methods in studying humanities urges all of us to rethink the impact of the digital on our lives. Its scholarship deals with “history, literature, languages, art history, music, cultural studies and many others… Digital Humanities has a very strong practical component as it includes the concrete creation of digital resources for the study of specific disciplines, while at the same time having a strongly theoretical basis.” (KCL) The objectives of digital humanities research focuses on using current technology as tools to explore areas of humanities that have not been discovered, researched or exploited using traditional methods. We have come to the conclusion that it is arts and discourses that have closely connected us with each other. Digital technology has thrived as the new media with which we create arts and so has digital humanities risen to delve deeper in the relations between us and media.

But how do video games come into the play of digital humanities? Well, video games rose as a special form of game that serve to entertain humans. Furthermore, unlike other generic games like sports and board games, video games are computer generated, so it is less restricted by the physical environment and more flexible in design. The game developers have exploited this feature and have turned videogames into ever more sophisticated and various kinds. The feature have impacted hugely on both the developer (the computer programming community) and the players (the general public). If not explicitly stated as a digital humanities project, the study combining computation and humanities disciplines, video games may only be treated as a pure entertainment, time-killer, and distraction. However, in this paper, I will introduce video games as a digital humanities project because it serves because blah

Part I. What is DH and why video games can be DH?

Digital humanities, whose definition is as fluid as many other subjects like arts and education, emerged as scholars realized the impact of the digital binary world on our non-binary world, or that of the cyberspace on our ordinary space-time. Its 500 possible definitions might also suggest that it be too late now to differentiate THE cyberspace first introduced by William Gibson from our three-plus-one space-time; it might also suggests that scholars have gone far to incorporate the study of the digital into humanities even though it has penetrated us biologically and socially wherever the digital has emerged, as demonstrated by one of the five hundred unacademic interpretations of digital humanities – “Very broadly–any application of the humanities that involves digital tools and/or approaches.” This implies the dynamics underlying this subject – that the emphasis of the subject change along how the society evolves, just like feminist studies. The fluidity of the definition does not dismiss the ground of studying. Fairly recently, Dan Cohen, the executive of the Digital Public Library of America, gave a more scholarly definition of digital humanities at a talk at Columbia University:

“Digital humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities from the creation of scholarly resources, to research on those resources, to the communication of results to colleagues and students.” (Cohen et al., 2011)

This definition possess the generality that encompasses the whole subject and the specificity of the functionality. Digital humanities is dedicated to the study of humanities. Meanwhile, its definition differs from that of the humanities, which is “The humanities are academic disciplines that study human culture, using methods that are primarily critical, or speculative, and have a significant historical element.” (Oxford, 2003) Digital humanities transfers the the focus of the method of studying from mind speculation to the machine algorithms, and from Cartesian introspection to resources and results shared among academia.

However, misunderstanding could occur when the only computation methods used in digital humanities are chart making or word counting, and it might be thought that these methods alone can accomplish the tasks of digital humanities. Following Cohen’s definition, digital humanities does not simply contain research based on word count and word search on literature, albeit still important tools used in digital humanities. It also contains the action of participating in activities in the cyberspace. At the beginning of Cohen’s talk, he presented the results of text mining that shows the change in the meaning of digital humanities in the past few years. The words that have faded are “text”, “computing”, “data”, and the words that have been used to describe digital humanities are “media”, “tools” and “work”. The emphasis of digital humanities has shifted from the simple text analysis to more holistic and complicated programs that actively help scholars conduct research and facilitate our daily lives.


Image 1 – Word Mining Results for Digital Humanities in 2009 (Cohen et al., 2011)


Image 2 – Word Mining Results for Digital Humanities in 2010 (Cohen et al., 2011)


Image 3 – Word Mining Results for Digital Humanities in 2011 (Cohen et al., 2011)


The misunderstanding of the digital humanities probably comes from the lack of recognition how the digital world, or the cyberspace, has merged with the previously non-digital world. Under that interpretation, using digital technology is no more sophisticated than human’s mastery of making and keeping fire in prehistoric era. Controversial as the viewpoint might be, the cyberspace, with the help of our own intelligence, has evolved up to the level of sophistication that confounds us and turns us into doubters of our own nature, which no other tool usage has been capable of doing. Such impact is also embodied when average folks complain about“keeping up with technology” because software developers of Apple, Google, Fedora etc., update their operating system every year, and in several years new brands of OS will likely emerge just as robust as the big ones now, not to mention millions of applications and games within those systems. Therefore, the digital media utilized in digital humanities encompass not only the simple ones, but also the vast majority of digital products with various complexities, especially those that directly interact with humans, namely, video games.

Certainly video games have already been used in education and therapeutic practices. But from the digital humanities perspective, video games serve greater purpose than teaching preschoolers how to count. Video games are an application of humanities – from its design to its execution (being played by a gamer); they convey the information from the designer through digital technology to the gamers. Video games thusly constitute a unique form of medium different from a book, a song or a movie, mainly due to the underlying complexity of the programming. In other words, they are highly techno-contrived in how they deal with the gamer. Every detail in the display, and every plot twist anticipating moves from the gamer and every response to the gamer’s move are implemented on electronic and optic components; the programs written by the coders control voltages that affect the display so as to interact with the gamer. There are millions of steps involved in the entire process of designing and executing. All of them rely heavily on our capability of imagining the arts and reasoning the logic steps. In other words, video programs, a product of the human mind, externalize the complexity of our thoughts, which not only contains discourses as in a book or images as in a movie, but those that enable us to anticipate, predict and respond in various situations such as daily social situations, dangerous warlike situation or impossible spacetime situations.

Video 1 – Video Game: “My Word Coach” in Education

Video games, as the interactive interface of the human and the digital, serve perfectly for the purpose of digital humanities that strives to “develop critical understanding of digital technologies, research in the arts and humanities and create digital resources” (KCL) that enriches the relation of human and technology.

Part II. The Complexity of Video Games Realizes a Unique Form of Art

How do video games connect humans with the digital then? I will argue that it is through its art form that video games bridge us and technology, even though the definition of art has also been controversial. Half sophisticated conclusions say that either everything is art including a stone randomly lying on the ground, or that nothing is art, not even the stone chiseled for years by Michelangelo. These definitions hardly capture the characteristics of arts that has been valued by humans and has assisted us in navigating in the world. They do not recognize the fact that only the objects and ideas created and interpreted by human can be called art.

Naturally, video games are under the broad spectrum of art. The underlying complexity of video games, as aforementioned, precisely embodies the one of the defining essences of art. Rick Moss, in his novel Ebocloud, casually discussed through one of the characters: “The differences between artists and scientists. I think it was Edward O. Wilson who said something like, ‘the love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.” (331 Moss) As we have created arts, we have adopted the ability to appreciate arts, and to appreciate the complexity underlying arts, consciously and subconsciously. This is how video games captivate us.  Hardly ever is one lost in the world of hopscotch or the insipid online game flow, because their lack of sophistication bores us. However, a game like Final Fantasy or FEX attract gamers because they are more complicated and challenging. Of course, the coders would appreciate the complexity of their codes; more importantly, the gamers who do not understand programing also appreciate and enjoy the various procedures created in the cyberspace. The attraction by the creation and the appreciation of art embodied in video games connects us with the digital world.


Image 4 – How Are Humans Connected with the Digital World through Video Games (by the Author)

As a digital humanities project, video games possess functions and charms that traditional media do not and therefore they are capable of expressing what those media cannot. Brett Martin, the owner of the world’s largest collection of video games, maintains that video games should be treated as art and accuses that the uniqueness of the art form is often undermined by the comparison that parallels video games with movies. He contends: “The analogy between movies and games also brings up another argument: games rely on the vocabulary and style of movies and, therefore, videogames may not be viewed as unique.” (352 Martin) He further illustrates this idea by an example of how Henry Peach Robinson, an English pictorialist photographer, was popular among the Victorian public but failed to “transform photography into a legitimate art form” (349); but Oscar Gustave Rejlander, his contemporary pioneering Victorian art photographer, was rejected by the public because his work depicted nudes” (349) but tried to “open people’s mind to a new medium with great potential” (349). To Martin, the art in video game shares the same fate with photography. Video games are created through the same processes that painters and movies are produced; this apparently will not separate video games from the other art forms.

The prominent feature, if not the only one, that separates video games from the other media is the interactive element. The feature also accomplishes its definition in arts. The players can “control and manipulate the game’s environment while creating an ethereal experience from playing.” (Martin 352) The interactions between the players and the computer game must be partially predicted by the game designer and she has to predetermine the outcome of the interaction, which will generate another scenario that requires more feedback from the player. The true interaction is carried out between the author of the game and the player only through the digital media. But it is precisely the media that distinguish video games from the one-direction information flow in other forms of media such as reading or watching a movie. Video games, as a digital humanities project, perfectly combines and harmonizes our experience with machine language. It is through the interactive experience, can we feel the power of art.

(David Rambo’s explanation of Super Mario Galaxy video)


Art can shake, impress, and change us. We feel akin to art simply because they connect to us through our past experience consciously and subconsciously. This is why we call a book, a movie or a painting, a genuine piece of art whenever we are touched by the content. “Art has done many things in human history, but in the last century especially, it has primarily tried to bother and provoke us.” (Bogost, 11) If a book or a movie can make us laugh until we cry our eyes out, video games should easily produce the same effect. The interaction generated by meticulous programing that delivers the intention of the author theoretically can empower video games to any level of empathy that other art has achieved. However, most video games are not created to achieve this goal. A fair share of video games merely seek to emulate movies or to recreate the visual effect of reality. However, the real without any romanticizing or abstraction does not move us. A rock lying on the ground fails to be anything more than a rock. The expression and reception of art must depend on fair amount of abstractness of the affordance yet not so much as to be entirely incomprehensible. As long as the interaction with the video games gives the gamer an abstract form of what she has experienced or desired for in real life, she will feel connected. This is not to say all games must be artsy, but that if games are to be treated as an impressive piece of art that connects with the gamer, the key does not lie in the realistic visualization of games, but how the interaction of the game directly deal with human emotions, which constitutes great art.

If there were no arts in video games, we would not be connected to the digital; if there were no interaction, video games would fail to deliver the rich content of art. Video games’ ability to connect with people ultimately is originated from the complexity and achieved by its interactivity. In other words, the complexity of the art, regardless whether it is flesh or robot made of steel, generates connection between the video game and the gamers. The algorithm can simply establish an interactive rewarding procedure – competition, to make the player feel connected. The gamer desires the reward; the reward that asks them to do almost whatever depending on the person: from nothing much whatsoever to conquering great hardship for noble causes.

Part III. Back to digital humanities

As presented in the last section, the complexity and the interactive aspect of computer games connects the gamers emotionally. The interaction of video games galvanizes its popularity. If the objective of digital humanities project is to investigate the new humanities in the digital era, video games should be the media that the digital humanists study. Because from what we discussed, the unique feature of video games, i.e. interaction, as shown by David’s video, captures the essence of prototype of what artificial intelligence is – the idea that Alan Turing had about digital machines. The coders design the “life-less” video game that interacts with the player: it gives different output to each input from the gamer, and the gamer changes after each decision she makes meanwhile the game itself also evolves into different scenarios. The theme of artificial intelligence, whose forms have been taken in computers and smartphones, underlies video games and makes it the most dynamic media for empathizing and delivering information. The study of video games indirectly helps us understand the goal of and the media in which artificial intelligence takes form in and how the digital humanities will interact/deal with it.

As we have discussed, digital humanities is no longer just using the the digital in order to study human culture because technology sipped in us and sometimes even outsmarted us; it is closer to the activity of working alongside with technologies. The humanistic side of the digital is achieved by interacting with us, for example, through video games. Video games obscure the boundary between artificial intelligence and our intelligence, between science and art, and between the quantitative and the qualitative; it triggers questions such as “Are humans digital?” because humans and digital technology have been blended and become such an interactive dynamical system (as we see in the case of video games) in this era that the absence of either paralyzes the entirety. When we either use video games as an educational tool or enjoy the entertainment it provides, the systems of the game and us works so “well” that some of us become obsessed with it. Video games have become a wonderful artistic platform on which humans and digital technology interact with and change each other.


The study of digital humanities have shifted from simple text search and big data presentation to work-based multimedia presentation. After recognizing that the expansion of digital technology blurs the line between the world we live in and strictly digital generated world. Video games, as one of the digital products, should have a significant status in the community because it has become one of the successful interacting tool that connects the digital and humans. The science behind its successfulness is the complex algorithm that predicts and responds to human behaviors.The expression of its successfulness comes from the art empowered by interaction, as the other forms of media that constitute great art such as movies, musicals and books.

However, it is its unique art form enabled by interaction that pales other art media. A great video game directly plays with the gamer’s emotion while the gamer plays it. If we go back to the quote by Edward O. Wilson “the love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science”. (331 Moss) Then video games as the expression of both art and artificial intelligence combine the art and science as a consummate appreciation of complexity. If a video game fail to function, it is because of the fail of implementing the algorithm behind the video games. If a video game fail to be popular, it is because it lacks the essence of art that connects people experientially and emotionally. For the gamers, falling in love with a video game is falling in love with the art of the video game, the part that the gamer empathize with. From the game designers’ perspective, the logic running in the background may also be an element of attraction.

Digital humanities, the subject that delve into the relation of the digital and the human, need the dynamics of video games: whether and how drastically the nature of human has changed after technology perpetuates the digital expression of information; whether it is one-directional influence of bi-directional; how video games, constituted by binary codes in a computer, can connect with us at the same, if not less, level that other media of art connect with us; what implication this has on the constitution of humans. Does the fact that we are connected through the digital means that we can be also be studied computationally? The question can be potentially answered by the research in biological neural nets and the development of artificial neural nets, on which the researchers can also use video games to study. If arts and humans can be created by the binary, what cannot?

Work cited:

Cohen, D., Federica F., Buzzetti D. and Rodriguez-Velasco,J. (2011) Defining the Digital Humanities. Online Video. Scholarly Communication Program, Center for Digital Research and scholarship, Libraries and Information Services. Accessed on 12 Dec. 2014


Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.

Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

KCL. MA Digital Humanities. King’s College London, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Martin, Brett. “Should Videogames Be Viewed as Art?” Videogames and Art. Second ed. Ed. Andy Clarke and Grethe Mitchell. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2013. 345-356. Print.

Moss, Rick. Ebocloud. Second ed. Aerodyne, 2010. Print.

“humanity” 2.b, Oxford English Dictionary 3rd Ed. (2003)



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