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Video Games as Cultural Artifacts: Fall 2021 Ducharme Lecture

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

As members of the Mount community entered Knott Auditorium on Wednesday, September 22 for the Ducharme Lecture, they curiously viewed the decorated image of an Etruscan vase projected onto the large overhead screen. As he took the stage to present the biannual,l Durchame Lecture, Eric Hayot, Ph.D., challenged the audience to explain what the vase revealed about the lives of the Etruscans, who occupied part of the Italian peninsula prior to the ascendancy of the Roman empire. Little remains of Etruscan civilization so Hayot argued that such objects provide a rare “aperture” into the lives and values of those who created them.

hayot-in-text.jpgWhile the audience was unaware of it at the time, Hayot was encouraging them to use a similar process to consider video games as cultural artifacts that help us better understand the world we live in. 

Hayot, the Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies and Director of the Center for Humanities and Information at Penn State University, is a prolific scholar and the prize-winning author of books on Chinese culture, modernity, literary worlds, and academic writing. His most recent book, Humanist Reason: A History. An Argument. A Plan., is an original and powerful defense of the humanities that offers practical advice about how students and faculty members can explain its value.

Hayot regularly asks Penn State students to consider the significance of video games in his course “Introduction to Video Game Culture” and will explore this topic in his next book. Early in the lecture, he explained the historical importance of culture: “Human beings have never existed without culture and aesthetic activity. There is no such thing as humanity without them,” Hayot asserted.

Even when humans have suffered through natural disasters and war, some form of culture has always existed. Although people often oppose the ideas of culture and work, and consider work as taking precedence, Hayot argued that neither can exist without the other. “If you want to understand the most important questions in the humanities,” he said, “if you want to understand humans or what our possibilities are, you cannot answer those questions without studying culture.”

From there, Hayot asked, “So why study video games?” Simply put, in this day and age video games are an integral piece of our culture and can thus reveal much about our values and aspirations. “You have to think of video games as our Etruscan vase,” he offered. Because video games are relatively new, Hayot added that they are “going to interface with the existing culture in potentially interesting ways.” For example, the way we evaluate video games today may change 50 or 60 years from now. “It’s very exciting because we are at the beginning of a new cultural phenomenon,” he said. “Not everyone gets to live through the introduction of a new cultural artifact, which may tell us stuff that we do not know.”

While video games themselves can certainly tell us more about our society, we can also look at the people who play them to gain a better understanding of our world. “When I say the word ‘gamer,’ everyone automatically visualizes a white man,” Hayot explained. “We know that isn’t true, but the stereotype exists.” In contrast, he notes, stereotypes like this do not exist for people who enjoy television or film.

Hayot shared insights about particular games during his talk. Even a game as simple as "Pac-Man" can help us understand society in the 1980s and the people who made or played the game. Hayot pointed out that "Pac-Man" and other early games initially designed for arcade use almost always end in “tragedy,” with the main character dying, in part because of the economics of the arcade. More recent games such as "Destiny" and "The Last of Us" also contain elements of tragedy, but they raise additional moral questions. "Destiny" follows a popular pattern that Hayot called the “explore-clear loop” in which the protagonist arrives at a new place, confronts and eliminates the foes there, and then gathers all the available “stuff” so that she or he is in a stronger position to repeat the process in the next place. Hayot observed this pattern has occurred in history, but it’s “not really a world most of us want to live in.”

The "Last of Us" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that requires the killing of many zombies and self-evidently evil human beings. At its conclusion, however, gamers are left with an impossible choice, immersed in a situation that compels them to consider “How do games create situations where murdering is okay?” or “How far would you go for someone you love?” Games like these, Hayot argues, “represent to us forms of living that are not representable in other genres.”

Hayot called single-player games “resource poor” because the central figure must obtain and control unique and finite resources to win the game by achieving total dominance in the gaming world. In contrast, multiplayer games provide “infinite resources” because each gaming action must be repeatable for each player, and each player must have equal access to all the resources in the gaming world. Players begin on an equal footing, and all are capable of achieving the game’s highest levels. Hayot stated that our world doesn’t conform perfectly to either of these models, but by exploring the underlying assumptions of such games, we gain insight into “the shape of a society’s dream.”

In typical Mount fashion, students and faculty had many questions for Hayot as the lecture concluded, and he entertained additional questions in small groups after the audience dispersed. His lecture galvanized professors and students to consider the relationship between the humanities and video games.

The university thanks Mount alumnus Raphael Della Ratta, C’92, for making these intellectually exciting experiences possible by endowing the Ducharme Lecture series with a generous gift.

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts