The Spring 2022 Final Showcase for the UVA Digital Humanities Certificate program was held on May 10, 2022. Alison Booth, our Academic Director here in the Lab, asked me to talk for a few minutes to the folks who attended about games and gaming, and why they’re important to the Lab. This blog post is a slightly edited version of the talk I gave that morning.
First, I think I should say that I’m not a scholar of ludology. I don’t really consider myself a scholar at all. I’m a librarian and a project manager by both training and by inclination. So what you’re getting from me here isn’t a scholarly talk about games and gaming, rather my goal for my few minutes of fame is to talk about why, specifically to me, games matter so much.
A Little Game History
The earliest archaeological evidence we have of games are game boards from Neolithic settlement sites in Jordan from about 5000BCE. We have identical game boards excavated from all over the Kingdom of Ur, and we can even buy a copy of those boards and game pieces and play them using rules reconstructed from the archaeological evidence. We have game boards and pieces recovered from Egyptian tombs, although their rules for play are lost to history. We have a story from Herodotus about the Kingdom of Lydia, where the King ordered dice games to be played on alternate days as the Kingdom struggled to survive a generation-long famine. Chess is an ancient game that evolved from a game first written about in Sanskrit in the 7th century CE. Parcheesi is even older than that, developing from the game Chaupar, played by Mughul emperors, which was written about in documents dated between 300 and 500 CE. Finally, I’d be remiss to not mention the game Go, the oldest game still played in its original form, developed in China some 2500 years ago, or maybe more. What I’m getting at is that playing games is about as a human an activity as there is.
Games to Build Community
So why, specifically, are games important to the Scholars’ Lab? Well, first of all, we’re a bunch of nerds who grew up playing tabletop games, video games, and role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. We just really like sitting down at a table and spending an hour playing a game or two with each other. And, as in some of those ancient cultures I just listed off for you, we use games and gaming to build social connection and cohesion, with each other, certainly, but also with our Library colleagues, with the students with whom we work, and with our faculty colleagues, too, because we invite everyone to join us for our game lunches.
For me, specifically, as a librarian, who understands the Library’s function to be a space of hospitality—and by that I mean, a space not owned or controlled by a specific academic department, where all are welcome and cross-departmental relationships can be created and nurtured—gaming offers a low stakes way for people to come together, to let go of their departmental affiliations, their professional titles, and their positions in the hierarchy for just a little while, and to build new connections and professional relationships. One of our main goals for the Lab is to function as exactly this kind of community hub.
Games to Teach Project Management Concepts
Looking at games and gaming from my project manager perspective, they are a low stakes way to get people working together, following a specific plan, to achieve a commonly understood goal, whether we’re playing a competitive game where there can only be one winner, or whether we’re playing a cooperative game where we all rise or fall together. Because once you strip away the frameworks, the processes, and the analysis and reporting tools, project management is exactly like a game, although hopefully the cooperative variety.
I’m not the only one who views project management through this lens, either. Our DH colleague Quinn Dombrowski, who works in the Library at Stanford University, taught a course in 2020 called Project Management and Ethical Collaboration for Humanists, a centerpiece of which was a tabletop RPG they developed depicting a year in the life of a DH project in which their students played characters who each had a different role in that project. They have referred to this game as “an exercise in empathy and imagination.”
Games for Empathy
I love that phrase: “empathy and imagination.” When I read that while preparing for this talk, I was reminded of a couple of things that Jane McGonigal said about gamers in her book Reality is Broken. Gamers have two qualities that are invaluable in building relationships with others. We love to share our games and teach other people how to play them, and indeed, in the Lab our entire function is to share our “games,” by which I mean the tools that digital humanists need to create the projects they can envision, to showcase their work, and to share it with a wider audience. The second invaluable quality of gamers is that we absolutely LOVE the feeling that McGonigal calls FIERO!. What’s fiero? Is that feeling you get when you’re playing just at the limit of your abilities, striving to level up or win a game, and you’re not quite sure you can manage it, but suddenly you’ve done what you set out to do. Fiero! is the moment of victory, of the epic win, and it’s a fantastic feeling. Gamer types not only love this for ourselves in our own game play, we also love sharing that feeling when the epic win is happening for someone else, too. Playing games teaches you that. Carrying it into your work builds strong, healthy individuals, teams, and communities.
Always Be Playing
Human beings learn by playing. Unfortunately, we’re told that we should give up play once we reach adulthood, but that’s really bad advice. There’s a lot of research that shows that games and gaming and play of all kinds actually reduce stress, improve performance, and encourage and enhance creativity and innovation. If I can encourage people to play in any way, I consider it a personal responsibility to help folks take care of their mental and physical health, and to remind them that playing should be fostered, not discarded, once we become adults.
So that’s where I’m coming from. That’s why I lug around giant bags full of games1, and why I do my best to keep a game lunch on the schedule for the Lab, or rather, why I did that in the pre-pandemic days, and fully intend do so once again when we’re past all the disruption and are all co-located once again. I hope you’ll join us someday for a game!