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Conferees discuss computer games

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"Computer and Video Games Come of Age," a national conference to explore the state of an "emerging entertainment medium," was held at MIT on February 10-11.

The conference on games was sponsored by the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT and the Interactive Digital Software Association. It was organized by Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and director of the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program.

"The conference created a unique space for conversation and discussion between industry insiders, academics and consumers about the current state and future development of electronic entertainment," said Professor Jenkins. "Everyone involved shared a respect for what the games industry has achieved and a real excitement about the directions it would go in the future. The consensus was that games were at an important threshold economically, technologically, culturally and aesthetically."

The games conference generated numerous lively conversations, the most dramatic of which began with the session on "Games and Education" in which Idit Harel, founder of MaMa-Media and one of the first graduates of the Media Lab, declared that children are the "new CEOs of the household -- that's chief entertainment officers -- and that, as such, they form the "clickerati generation." MaMaMedia promotes children as designers of their own media experiences.

"The 3 R's have been replaced by the 3 X's -- expression, exploration and exchange," she said.

Ellen Strain of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Bonnie Bracey, a former classroom teacher now with the Online Internet Institute, joined Ms. Harel in promoting conversation among panelists and the audience on the role of computer games in the classroom. Many attendees shared a sense of frustration with the "language-locked" condition of most humanities scholars, and everyone had bitter memories of boring "worksheets" in their school years.

"Most of the educators agreed that there was a compelling need for media education to be incorporated into the existing school curriculum to reflect the new skill and passion children and youth displayed towards interacting with media," Professor Jenkins said.

Other panel sessions included "The Aesthetics of Game Design," "Games as Popular Culture" and "Games as Interactive Storytelling."

The session on games as popular culture also generated some lively, not to say combative, exchanges around the room. Reviewers and critics writing about games for Next Generation, a gamers' magazine, spoke about their experiences. Ted Friedman, a panelist and freelance writer, noted that towering figures, comparable to Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus in rock criticism, had yet to emerge in the game world.

Themes for further discussion that arose from the conference included the need for a new critical vocabulary for talking about games and achievement in the game field; the potential impact of the new processing power unleashed by the Playstation II and other next-generation game consoles; and the increasingly important role played by online gaming.

Some participants, extending the analogy to the development of the rock music industry, music and criticism, stressed the importance of developing a "garage game" aesthetic for getting tools for game development into the hands of consumers to ensure the continued diversification of game form and content.

Speakers and panelists at the games conference included J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation and a weekly New York Times column, "Game Theory;" Trip Hawkins, founder of 3DO Co.; Greg Smith, editor of On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology; and Christopher Weaver, chief technical officer of Zenimax, former associate of the Architecture Machine Group and Fellow of the MIT Communications Program.

Numerous game designers attended, including Gabe Newell of Valve Software ("Half-Life"); Hal Barwood of LucasArts ("Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine") and Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios ("Powermonger" and "Dungeonkeeper.")

The complete text of papers presented at the Games Conference will be available at the CMS web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 16, 2000.

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